Seth Godin on the bully-as-victim

Writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin reminds us of his ability to pack a lot into few words in this pithy blog post from today:

The bully-victim cycle

A bully acts up in a meeting or in an online forum. He gets called on it and chastised for his behavior.

The bully then calls out the person who cited their behavior in the first place. He twists their words, casts blame and becomes an aggrieved victim.

Often, members of the tribe then respond by backing off, by making amends, by giving the bully another chance.

And soon the cycle continues.

Brands do this, bosses do it and so do passers-by. Being a bully is a choice, and falling for this cycle, permitting it to continue, is a mistake.

It’s complicated, sometimes

As Godin’s post suggests, sorting out who is the bully and who is the target can be more difficult than first meets the eye. Some situations just aren’t clear cut.

In some instances, “bullying” may not be the apt term. Instead, what you have is an exchange of incivilities, ranging from a true personality conflict between relative equals, to an organizational culture rife with people in a nasty mood.

Real bullying constitutes a form of abuse intended to harm another, often involving the exploitation of an uneven power relationship. Getting to the root of these situations may require some sleuthing, but once the context and facts are known, the picture becomes a lot clearer.

In particular, look for repeat offenders. Many bullies are recidivists, using the same or similar techniques (blame-the-victim is a favorite) over and again, while having the ruthless smarts to avoid being held accountable.


Hat tip to Larry Loebig for the Godin post.

4 responses

  1. Thanks so much, David, for emphasizing the importance of getting to the root of workplace situations that potentially involve abuse.

    As a mediator and conflict consultant, I have great concern about the issue of sufficient case development in such situations. From my experience, many mediators (and likely, a majority of mediators) do not have a full understanding of the nuances of workplace abuse. Therefore, mediators will often agree to mediate a case without adequate case development – and, one in which mediation may ultimately exacerbate an abusive environment (i.e., perpetuating abuse by giving the appearance of condoning it through a “neutral” process).

    Organizations that are truly concerned about the impact of institutionalized workplace abuse would be well-served by having incidents investigated by professionals with experience in abusive behavior.

    I so appreciate your blog, David! Thank you for continuing to shine a bright light on workplace abuse.

    Take care.
    Debra Healy

    • Debra, thank you for reminding us of the critical need of having skilled hands on deck to help answer the “simple” question, “what happened???”

  2. Patricia Evans has done a lot of work re: verbal abuse and I found her discussion of two realities re: power in her book, “The Verbally Abusive Relationship” to be extremely insightful.

    In my opinion there are individual and social (or workplace cultural) implications that contribute to the tolerance and therefore perpetuation of repeat offenders.

    She talks about how some people live in a world where they have power WITH others and other people only have power OVER others. This book has been out for over 15 years, but offers lots of helpful info. Her website may be of interest too.

    Thanks for the post and reference, David.

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