What makes someone a potential workplace bullying target?

This question is raised often during Q&A sessions of panel discussions and presentations about workplace bullying: What makes someone a potential target?

The answers, usually offered somewhat off-the-cuff (including by yours truly), vary:

  • A high performer who incurs the resentment of a supervisor or co-workers;
  • A marginal performer whose job security is shaky;
  • Whistle blowers who threaten an unethical status quo;
  • A socially popular employee who incurs resentment;
  • A socially unpopular employee who incurs scorn and isolation;
  • A person who doesn’t quite “fit in”;
  • A physically attractive person who incurs resentment;
  • A physically unattractive person who incurs disapproval;
  • Someone with a characteristic associated with cultural or individual bias: sex, sexual orientation, social class, race, color, age, disability, etc.;
  • A psychologically or situationally strong person whom an aggressor wants to break;
  • A psychologically or situationally vulnerable person who attracts those in search of prey;
  • An individual who voices unpopular opinions;
  • And so on…

The short answer: They stick out

Folks, it’s all of the above.

Indeed, after considering all of these legitimate possibilities, for me it boils down to this: Potential workplace bullying targets usually stick out in some way to potential aggressors. By some characteristic or behavior, they unwittingly trip a wire that unleashes abusive behaviors.

Profiling targets

I’ve thought a lot about this in light of attempts by some researchers and theorists to engage in target profiling. It usually starts with a hypothesis that targets are weak and vulnerable individuals who cannot defend themselves from the verbal and non-verbal onslaughts of workplace bullying. On occasion it leads to the disturbing implication that we can “end” workplace bullying by not hiring likely targets.

It’s true that some bullying targets may project a vulnerability that attracts aggressors like moths to a flame. (Or, perhaps “sharks to prey” is the better imagery…) But over the past decade, I’ve become familiar with so many workplace bullying stories that this profile simply doesn’t hold up as the sole or primary scenario. I’ve also seen too many instances where even the strongest of individuals have their breaking points. Under the wrong circumstances, any of us can be rendered awfully vulnerable.

The indiscriminate aggressor

Of course, we also know that some aggressors appear to be indiscriminate in terms of their targets. Perhaps it’s the boss who routinely bullies any individual unfortunate enough to be his administrative assistant. Or maybe it’s someone who carries so much hostility and resentment, or is so psychologically damaged, that acting abusively toward others is standard behavior.

In such circumstances, virtually anyone is a potential target.

13 responses

  1. Great point, David. I agree that it could be ANYTHING!

    Also, there are bullying cultures. “This is the way we work here.”

    It can be top-down – or just allowed to flourish. It can be because of the history of the organization, where it is right now in its evolution, who is in charge, or a myriad of other reasons.

  2. From a conflict perspective, fear – generated by both real and/or perceived threats – engenders anxiety, which in turn, engenders the instinctive reactions.

    What do “bullies” fear?

    Threats to getting their needs and interests met. Therefore, the threat of appearing incompetent ranks high on the list, i.e., “If I appear incompetent, I am at great risk of getting my needs and interests met.”

    There are an unlimited variations of factors that might combine to pose a perceived threat to a bully’s sense of competency.

    When confronted with conflict, bullies seems to be stuck in “fight” mode – despite the possible alternative options of avoid (flight), accommodate, compromise and collaborate.

    Thinking of the two Chinese characters that comprise the word “crisis”: “danger” and “opportunity,” provides another perspective – a perhaps twisted version of the meaning, ala a shark and its prey. The shark needs to eat. The prey may appear somewhat dangerous, but it also provides an opportunity to eat.

    From a human perspective, while being perceived as threats, “targets” can provide opportunities to get a bully’s needs and interests met.

    If a bully feels that getting his or her needs and interests met is threatened, the reaction may be to seek to exploit a situation in a way that enhances the chances of getting his/her needs and interests met (which inherently includes enhancing the perception of his or her competency). The bully’s seeming underlying belief is that by exploiting the target to enhance the perception of the his/her competency, the threat of being perceived as incompetent is decreased.

    Think of all the creatures who make themselves appear large and threatening to ward off threats to themselves.

    Therefore, in this sort of roundabout way, I come to the same conclusion as you do: “virtually anyone is a potential target.” 🙂

    Thanks, David.

    Take care.

  3. Great post David. I think the “sticking out” part is key. It’s like being the animal that strays from the herd – easier to pick off.

  4. Bullies are typically threatened on some level by the skills, knowledge and abilities of the chosen target. So the bully sets out to reduce the self confidence, esteem and credability of the perceived rival. The bully works diligently to deminish the credability of the target becauae the bully is fearful of any disiplinary action, should the abusive behavior be reported.

    I would suggest that more often than not, the target is someone who stands out because s/he has the positive traits the bully lacks.

  5. The truth is some adults ( thru inherent traits and the way they were raised) will become victims and simply not have the coping skills necessary to turn the situation around or move on. There is very little that the rest of us can do for them, except begrudgingly listen and read their complaints, their stories and simply say we’re sorry to hear of all your troubles.

    • Are you speaking about bully’s or targets?

      If this reply is about targets, then I need to speak to it. No one deserves to be bullied regardless of as you state “traits or how they were raised”. This has nothing to being the target of bullying (in schools or in the workplace). It is not up to the target to “turn the situation around”. It is up to the employer and to all members involved. Including bystanders. A target needs people to have the courage to support them and help them feel safe in the workplace. For the most part a target is debilitated and unable to move on with out supports, time and options.

      There MUCH “the rest of you” can do for targets.

      Speak out, stand up and name the abuse, offer support and information, address the employers lack of policy, prevention, skills, resolutions and solutions! Do research on the subject and understand the targets situation, validate something happened! For examples: stand beside the target when the bully is near and offer non verbal support. In other words just having other people around will stop a bully from bullying. Examine our own attitudes to towards targets and also bullies. Where is our reactions coming from? Why do some people dismiss and/or minimize the targets experience? Why blame the target? The more we remain silent, the more we enable the bully. What can we do to change this. What can we do better?

      In this case, I would suggest starting with the sentence “except begrudgingly listen”.

      Comments from people who have no understanding of this epidemic, or of their own negative reactions to this abuse, can damage and insult innocent hard working people even further.

      • I agree Linda. I suspect the reason people do not support targets is because of their own cowardice. People tend to distance themselves from others in pain. If they can convince themselves that the target somehow deserved what happened, then they can maintain the illusion of safety.

  6. I would like to add to the list that some targets are chosen due to demographics, such as being single-partents-who can be judged/viewed differently and assessed as being more vulnerable

    I, also, think that aggressors sometimes choose targets based upon convenience-target(s) available due to circumstance.

    In a sense, it seems as though the agression is similar to other acts of violence visited upon members of our society in that there are times when the victim/target is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time in their lives.

  7. It is a culture that we nurture and develop in grade school. It is modeled and accepted. Why do you think we have such a problem in our schools? The wolves are watching the sheep. Unfortunately, with the advent of female administrators, the ‘Mean Girls’ are running our schools.

  8. Bullying occurs within all professions, and within all ranks. I agree there are many complexities to bullying making it one of the most difficult forms of abuse. For example, the culture of the organization may support it, ignore it, and know little about what to do about it. Blaming the target is a much easier route for most employers. And yes it can be top down but it can also be bottom up too.

    As stated by the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying cannot exist where it is not tolerated (WBI). So lets stop tolerating it.

    I believe a bully’s issues can be like the iceberg. The deepest and most powerful/damaged portion of a bully is fear as mentioned earlier. Anyone who abuses someone is fearful of something. Perhaps it is the fear of being ‘seen’ for who ‘they’ truly believe they are. Maybe they feel incompetent, inadequate, and unworthy for starters. Maybe their skilled employees trigger these fears. Maybe they are terrified of showing weakness and those targets who are comfortable appearing “human” trigger these fears also. Who really knows where and when these insecurities and/or fears first developed in the bully, but I am guessing before their bullying days.

    I believe targets trigger these fears based on one or more of the ‘target’ points listed at the start of this discussion, but we need to add that someimes a target is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Bullies are in position of power. This is another complexity “power” as it can comes in various forms. They oppress and suppress the targets (or threats the targets pose) and turn, the target becomes ‘the scapegoat of the bullies inadequacies’. We also have psychopaths and sociopaths in the workplace. And various other forms of mental illness ie: borderline personality/bi-polar disorders. Burn out can also cause a person to lash out and become abusive.

    Sometimes those who were bullied, bully. More importantly, children who were bullied can grow up to become adult bullies with “more sophisticated methods”. Therefore the skill of hiding their abusive ways and isolating the target, creating and placing the illusion of blame on the targets, can be profound. In fact, if even the target is left in disillusionment and disbelief, how will anyone else believe what has happened? Where is their hope? Sure looks like a terrible trap to me.

    Last point, it is difficult to get the bullies to be accountable and/or provide explanations and change of their actions. It is not so difficult or unheard of for bystanders or targets. That says alot in itself.

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