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Updated by Tim Field Foundation
There are many reasons how and why bullies target others, and the reasons are consistent between different cases. There are many euphamisms used to describe bullying (e.g. firm management") and myths used to justify it (e.g. "victims are weak"). None of these are true. Bullying often repeats because bullies target their victims for the same reasons each time. This page may answer the question, "Why do I keep getting bullied?".
Why do people get bullied?
Bullies can act because they are jealous of their target's status, talents, abilities, circumstances or possessions. Bullies act without integrity, and despise people who display it. Sometimes they act with no reason other than for the kick they get from realising that something they have done has provoked a reaction in their target. Making people annoyed can be a cheap source of gratification and amusement. But bullies with jobs fear exposure of their perceived shortcomings, such as inadequacy and incompetence, and these people bully not for fun but in order - they think - to survive. Competent colleagues fuel the bully's fear that shortcomings in their capabilities will surface, so they tend to select targets who fulfil some of the criteria below.
- Being in the wrong place at the wrong time
- Bullies are predatory and opportunistic. Irrespective of any other explanation, being in the wrong place at the wrong moment is the main reason.
- Being competent:-
- being good at their job, often excelling;
- being willing to go that extra mile and expect others to do the same;
- being successful, tenacious, determined, courageous, having fortitude;
- being imaginative, creative, innovative;
- being able to master new skills;
- thinking long term and seeing the bigger picture;
- being helpful, always willing to share knowledge and experience;
- being diligent and industrious;
- Being Popular:-
- with colleagues, customers, clients, pupils, parents, patients, etc;
- Being regarded as an expert and the person to whom others come for advice, either personal or professional;
- having a sense of humour, including displays of quick-wittedness
- Having strength of character:-
- displaying integrity, honesty, intelligence and intellect;
- having a well-defined set of values that they are unwilling to compromise;
- being trustworthy, trusting, conscientious, loyal and dependable;
- a sense of fairness: willingness to tackle injustice;
- low propensity to violence and strong forgiving streak
- refusing to join an established clique;
- being sensitive (having empathy, concern for others, respect, tolerance etc)
- being slow to anger
- showing independence of thought or deed;
- refusing to become a corporate clone and drone;
- having high coping skills under stress, especially when the injury to health becomes apparent
- Having a vulnerability:-
- The need to earn a living from work;
- being proud of one's reputation and record;
- being too old or too expensive;
- finding it difficult to say no;
- low assertiveness and a need to feel valued;
- believing everyone is on the same team and working toward the same goals;
- being too tolerant;
- being a perfectionist;
- low propensity to violence and strong forgiving streak;
- a tendency to self-deprecation, indecisiveness, deference and approval seeking;
- high expectations of those in authority and a distaste for those who abuse their power;
- quick to apologise when accused, even if not guilty
- Having raised concerns
- ... about bullying, fraud, safety or any matter where the bully feels implicated or at risk as a result.
This list of characteristics apply to "innocent" targets. However, some people respond to bullying with bullying. Sometimes they target their bully, sometimes they pass it down the line to a peer or subordinate. Some see this as a survival technique in an environment where bullying is rife, and it leads to widespread conflict. Revenge bullying does not require the target to have the sort of characteristics listed above, but any perceived weakness will do. Some would argue that bullying in revenge is justifiable, but in absolute terms it is no less unreasonable than the behaviour that provoked it. The perpetrator of revenge bullying loses any moral high ground they might have had at the outset, and ultimately they lose their right to criticise the conduct that they were originally subjected to.
Events / characteristics that trigger bullying
Bullying starts because of one of these things:
- Structural Changes:-
- the previous target leaves;
- there's a reorganisation;
- a new manager is appointed;
- Economic forces make the bully's job more difficult than normal - a big order or a downturn;
- Target's Popularity:-
- The target's performance unwittingly highlights, draws attention to, exposes or invites unfavourable comparison with the bully's lack of performance
- The target unwittingly becomes the focus of legitimate attention, making the bully jealous;
- The target receives obvious displays of affection, respect or trust from co-workers;
- gaining recognition for achievements, eg winning an award or being publicly recognised
- gaining promotion
- Target's Integrity:-
- The target questions or refuses to obey an instruction that would require violation of law, rules, procedures etc
- The target stands up for a co-worker who is already being bullied. This may result in instant suspension on specious grounds;
- blowing the whistle on incompetence, malpractice, fraud, illegality, breaches of procedure, breaches of health & safety regulations etc. Again, this can lead to instant suspension on specious grounds;
- undertaking trade union duties or performing other activities that are protected by law;
- challenging the status quo, especially unwittingly;
- Personal Characteristic of the Target:-
- suffering illness or injury, whether work related or not
- Being the wrong race, gender, gender orientation, religion, being disabled etc. While it is unlawful to bully someone for reasons related to such characteristics, a person could be bullied because they have ginger hair, blonde hair, too many spots, too few spots, are too tall, too short etc - in fact, for an infinite number of reasons.
A typical sequence of events is:
- The target is selected using the criteria above, then bullied for months, perhaps years. Eventually, the target asserts their right not to be bullied, perhaps by filing a complaint with Human Resources.
- It's one word against another with no witnesses and no evidence. Bullies readily lie and manipulate facts and people, so HR accepts the bully's word over the target's.
- HR is further hoodwinked by the bully into getting rid of the target, often on concocted or false conduct or capability grounds that give bystanders the feeling that the dismissal is legitimate.(
- (The HR manager might be a close ally of the bully, and proceeds without considering any moral or legal issues other than "is this going to come back and bite me?")
- Once the target is gone, there's a period of between 2-14 days, then a new target is selected and the process starts again. This is because bullying is an obsessive/compulsive behaviour and serial bullies seem unable to survive without having someone onto whom they can project their inadequacies.
- Even if the employer realises that they might have sided with the wrong person in the past, they are unlikely to admit it because of fear of legal liabilities. If the target begins legal proceedings, they often end with out-of-court settlements with confidentiality clauses.
- Employers often promote serial bullies more readily than others, possibly because they are utterly beguiled by them, or perhaps as a form of appeasement because the manager is frightened of what the bully might do. Promotion after a bullying-related dispute is sometimes granted as if to compensate the bully for all the trouble they have been through.
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