The Serial Bully
The serial bully
Identifying the psychopath or sociopath in our midst including the socialised psychopathic manager
"All cruelty springs from weakness." (Seneca, 4BC-AD65)
"Most organisations have a serial bully. It never ceases to amaze me how one person's divisive, disordered, dysfunctional behaviour can permeate the entire organisation like a cancer."
"The truth is incontrovertible; malice may attack it, ignorance my deride it, but in the end, there it is." Winston Churchill
"Lack of knowledge of, or unwillingness to recognise, or outright denial of the existence of the serial bully is the most common reason for an unsatisfactory outcome of a bullying case for both the employee and employer. I estimate one person in thirty, male or female, is a serial bully." Tim Field
The Serial Bully
Most cases of bullying involve a serial bully - one person to whom all the dysfunction can be traced. The serial bully has done this before, is doing it now - and will do it again. Investigation will reveal a string of predecessors who have either left unexpectedly or in suspicious circumstances, have taken early or ill-health retirement, have been unfairly dismissed, have been involved in disciplinary or legal action, or have had stress breakdowns. Serial bullies exploit the recent frenzy of downsizing and reorganisation to hinder recognition of the pattern of previous cases.
The serial bully in the workplace is often found in a job which is a position of power, has a high administrative or procedural content but little or no creative requirement, and which provides opportunities for demonstrating a "caring" or "leadership" nature.
Introduction to the serial bully
Embittered by an abusive upbringing, seething with resentment, irritated by others' failure to fulfil his or her superior sense of entitlement, and fuelled by anger resulting from rejection, the serial bully displays an obsessive, compulsive and self-gratifying urge to displace their uncontrolled aggression onto others whilst exhibiting an apparent lack of insight into their behaviour and its effect on people around them. Jealousy and envy motivate the bully to identify a competent and popular individual who is then controlled and subjugated through projection of the bully's own inadequacy and incompetence. When the target asserts their right not to be bullied, a paranoid fear of exposure compels the bully to perceive that person as a threat and hence neutralise and dispose of them as quickly as possible. Once a person has been eliminated there's an interval of between 2 days and 2 weeks before the bully chooses another target and the cycle starts again.
What about Mediation?
Mediation with this type of individual is inappropriate. Serial bullies regard mediation (and arbitration, conciliation, negotiation etc) as appeasement, which they ruthlessly exploit; it allows them to give the impression in public that they are negotiating and being conciliatory, whilst in private they continue the bullying. The lesson of the twentieth century is that you do not appease aggressors.
Avoiding acceptance of responsibility - denial and feigning victimhood
The serial bully is an adult on the outside but a child on the inside; he or she is like a child who has never grown up. One suspects that the bully is emotionally retarded and has a level of emotional development equivalent to a five-year-old, or less. The bully wants to enjoy the benefits of living in the adult world, but is unable and unwilling to accept the responsibilities that go with enjoying the benefits of the adult world. In short, the bully has never learnt to accept responsibility for their behaviour.
When called to account for the way they have chosen to behave, the bully instinctively:
a) denies everything. Variations include Trivialization ("This is so trivial it's not worth talking about...") and the Fresh Start tactic ("I don't know why you're so intent on dwelling on the past" and "Look, what's past is past, I'll overlook your behaviour and we'll start afresh") - this is an abdication of responsibility by the bully and an attempt to divert and distract attention by using false conciliation.
Imagine if this line of defence were available to all criminals
("Look I know I've just murdered 12 people but that's all in the past, we can't change the past, let's put it behind us, concentrate on the future so we can all get on with our lives" - this would do wonders for prison overcrowding).
b) quickly and seamlessly follows the denial with an aggressive counter-attack of counter-criticism or counter-allegation, often based on distortion or fabrication. Lying, deception, duplicity, hypocrisy and blame are the hallmarks of this stage. The purpose is to avoid answering the question and thus avoid accepting responsibility for their behaviour. Often the target is tempted - or coerced - into giving another long explanation to prove the bully's allegation false; by the time the explanation is complete, everybody has forgotten the original question.
Both a) and b) are delivered with aggression in the guise of assertiveness; in fact there is no assertiveness (which is about recognising and respecting the rights of oneself and others) at all. Note that explanation - of the original question - is conspicuous by its absence.
c) in the unlikely event of denial and counter-attack being insufficient, the bully feigns victimhood or feigns persecution by manipulating people through their emotions, especially guilt.
This commonly takes the form of bursting into tears, which most people cannot handle. Variations include indulgent self-pity, feigning indignation, pretending to be "devastated", claiming they're the one being bullied or harassed, claiming to be "deeply offended", melodrama, martyrdom ("If it wasn't for me...") and a poor-me drama ("You don't know how hard it is for me ... blah blah blah ..." and "I'm the one who always has to...", "You think you're having a hard time ...", "I'm the one being bullied...").
Other tactics include manipulating people's perceptions to portray themselves as the injured party and the target as the villain of the piece. Or presenting as a false victim. Sometimes the bully will suddenly claim to be suffering "stress". Alleged ill-health can also be a useful vehicle for gaining attention and sympathy.
By using this response, the bully is able to avoid answering the question and thus avoid accepting responsibility for what they have said or done. It is a pattern of behaviour learnt by about the age of 3; most children learn or are taught to grow out of this, but some are not and by adulthood, this avoidance technique has been practised to perfection.
A further advantage of the denial/counter-attack/feigning victimhood strategy is that it acts as a provocation. The target, who may have taken months to reach this stage, sees their tormentor getting away with it and is provoked into an angry and emotional outburst after which the bully says simply "There, I told you s/he was like that". Anger is one of the mechanisms by which bullies (and all abusers) control their targets. By tapping in to and obtaining an inappropriate release of pent-up anger the bully plays their master stroke and casts their victim as villain.
When called to account for the way they have chosen to behave, mature adults do not respond by bursting into tears. If you're dealing with a serial bully who has just exhibited this avoidance tactic, sit passively and draw attention to the pattern of behaviour they've just exhibited, and then the purpose of the tactic. Then ask for an answer to the question.
Bullies also rely on the denial of others and the fact that when their target reports the abuse they will be disbelieved ("are your sure this is really going on?", "I find it hard to believe - are you sure you're not imagining it?"). Frequently targets are asked why they didn't report the abuse before, and they will usually reply "because I didn't think anyone would believe me." Sadly they are often right in this assessment. Because of the Jekyll & Hyde nature, compulsive lying, and plausibility, no-one can - or wants - to believe it. Click here for a detailed explanation of the target's reluctance to report abuse.
Denial features in most cases of sexual assault, as in the case of Paul Hickson, the UK Olympic swimming coach who sexually assaulted and raped teenage girls in his care over a period of 20 years or more. When his victims were asked why they didn't report the abuse, most replied "Because I didn't think anyone would believe me". Abusers confidently, indeed arrogantly, rely on this belief, often aggressively inculcating (instilling) the belief ("No-one will ever believe you") just after the sexual assault when their victim is in a distressed state.
Targets of bullying in the workplace often come up against the same attitudes by management when they report a bullying colleague. In a workplace environment, the bully usually recruits one or two colleagues (sometimes one is a sleeping partner - see Affairs below) who will back up the bully's denial when called to account.
Serial bullies harbour a particular hatred of anyone who can articulate their behaviour profile, either verbally or in writing - as on this page - in a manner which helps other people see through their deception and their mask of deceit. The usual instinctive response is to launch a bitter personal attack on the person's credentials, lack of qualifications, and right to talk about personality disorders, psychopathic personality etc, whilst preserving their right to talk about anything they choose - all the while adding nothing to the debate themselves.
Serial bullies hate to see themselves and their behaviour reflected as if they are looking into a mirror.
Bullies project their inadequacies, shortcomings, behaviours etc on to other people to avoid facing up to their inadequacy and doing something about it (learning about oneself can be painful), and to distract and divert attention away from themselves and their inadequacies. Projection is achieved through blame, criticism and allegation; once you realise this, every criticism, allegation etc that the bully makes about their target is actually an admission or revelation about themselves.
This knowledge can be used to perceive the bully's own misdemeanours; for instance, when the allegations are of financial or sexual impropriety, it is likely that the bully has committed these acts; when the bully makes an allegation of abuse (such allegations tend to be vague and non-specific), it is likely to be the bully who has committed the abuse. When the bully makes allegations of, say, "cowardice" or "negative attitude" it is the bully who is a coward or has a negative attitude.
In these circumstances, the bully has to understand that if specious and insubstantive allegations are made, the bully will also be investigated.