The bullied and the button pushers


Earlier this week I received a note from a man who had been terminated from his job after several decades of working for a single employer. He shared with me that he had been in a terribly abusive work environment. His supervisor knew how to push his buttons, and one day he just lost it and acted out. He was fired for violating his employer’s rules of conduct.

He conceded that his actions led to his dismissal. But he did urge that the bullying he was subjected to, and his supervisor’s ability to push his buttons, triggered his behavior. His account, and the words he used, sounded very credible to me.

Furthermore, the scenario is all too common: Workplace bullying targets — stressed out, angry, exasperated, and stuck in classic fight-or-flight mode — may lash out against aggressors who are in a position to turn the tables against them for their supposed misconduct.

Button pushing

Workplace aggressors are often experts at button pushing. They know how to get a rise out of someone, and if it causes the target to say or do something that gives the aggressors even more of an upper hand, then all the better. Under stress, targets can engage in self-defeating behaviors, and crossing the line in responding to abusive work situations is a frequent one.

Of course, we know the advice: Don’t let them push your buttons. Don’t let them get to you. Don’t let them “win.”

It’s all true, and it’s much, much easier said than done.

This is especially the case when the bullying behaviors are covert and indirect, making it more difficult to substantiate them and to persuade anyone else that something very wrong is occurring. It’s also the case when the abuse is in the form of full-blown mobbing by multiple parties. In both situations, the target may feel very isolated, and then one day that button is pushed while the defenses are down. The target’s response — while understandable under the circumstances and perhaps briefly cathartic — is framed by the employer as misconduct, often with witnesses suddenly emerging to support the allegation.


Bullying situations have a way of becoming all consuming for targets, as most battles and ordeals have a way of doing. In these situations, exercising self-control is a powerful tool.

Building that self-control in the face of bullying may require drawing support and help from others. Friends and family, mental health providers, personal coaches, and religious advisors are among those possibilities. For some, learning about the dynamics of bullying can validate their experiences and help them to understand that they are not “crazy” for feeling the way they do.

I fully admit that none of this is easy. But it is part of maintaining or reclaiming one’s dignity. It also helps one to make smarter choices among potential options, even in stressful and wrongful circumstances.


Related posts

When workplace bullies claim victim status: Avoiding the judo flip (2013) — This is an end product of the button-pushing.

Do “almost psychopaths” help to explain the prevalence of workplace bullying and abuse? (2012) — A lot of “almost psychopaths” are among the chief practitioners of button pushing.

Bullied at work? Avoid making these common mistakes (2010; updated 2016) — Additional advice for targets.


Image courtesy of

How to support the Healthy Workplace Bill

We’re moving closer to the day when the Healthy Workplace Bill will become law in states across the nation. Getting that first state to adopt it is the toughest hurdle, but once the dam is broken, many others will follow.

If you want to see workplace anti-bullying legislation enacted in your state, here’s by far the most effective route to take:

Contact your state legislators

Contact your state legislators

Contact your state legislators

Visit them, mail them, call them, or e-mail them. But do press your case. Ask them to sponsor or co-sponsor the Healthy Workplace Bill. Ask them to exercise their influence to move the HWB through the thicket of the legislative process. Thank them when they do so.

Some points to consider:

1. It’s most essential that you contact your own legislators. Legislators listen closely to their constituents, i.e., voters in their district.

2. Share your story. Let them know, in personal terms and in your own words, that workplace bullying is about abusive, hurtful mistreatment at work.

3. If your legislator declines to support the HWB, don’t be angry or disrespectful, but try again on another occasion.

Other measures

Here are some other useful things you can do:

1. If you are a member of an advocacy or professional organization that endorses legislation, ask that group to formally support the HWB.

2. Post supportive online comments to news articles discussing the Healthy Workplace Bill and workplace bullying in general.

3. Write letters to the editor of your local paper expressing support for the Healthy Workplace Bill.

Notice what I didn’t mention: “Liking” or commenting on a Facebook post about workplace bullying is fine, but it doesn’t substitute for direct advocacy. Signing an online petition may create a sense of solidarity, but it pales in effectiveness next to personal contact with your legislators.

Bottom line

I think you get the message. It’s all about persuading those in a position to support and vote on the Healthy Workplace Bill.

Be assured that powerful interests that oppose workplace bullying legislation are quietly spreading their message in state capitols across the country. They have money and power behind them, and they want to ensure that employers will not face liability for this form of abuse.

It’s up to us to say that we, as a society, must do better than that.



National website for the Healthy Workplace Bill campaign — Check here to see if your state is actively considering the HWB, and to become part of a network of grassroots activists supporting it.

Massachusetts website for the Healthy Workplace Bill campaign — The HWB has been introduced in the current, 2013-14 session as House No. 1766. At this website you can sign up for updates about what you can do to support it.

Six-minute video explaining the need for the Healthy Workplace Bill — A short, snappy, informative video prepared by Deb Falzoi of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates.

How do boredom and technology feed psychological aggression?

What roles do boredom and easy online access play in fueling the waves of incivility, bullying, and just plain meanness that can manifest themselves in the digital world?

Gaby Hinsliff, writing for The Guardian, suggests that boredom is driving a lot of interpersonal hostility in our society, including the online realm. Before anyone accuses Hinsliff of oversimplifying or excusing bad online behaviors, it’s worth reading her full opinion piece, which places boredom in a broader social context:

Boredom is a sickness, a blight on contemporary life, secondary only in its capacity for damage to the self-destructive things we do to relieve it: eating too much, getting hammered, picking fights (virtual or in real life), taking stupid risks, having affairs, mooching mindlessly around the shops buying things we don’t really need.

Hinsliff further explains how boredom may intersect with specific biases to create anti-social behavior. Here’s a snippet:

As for why malicious tweeters so often home in on female, black or gay targets, dumb prejudice obviously plays a big part, but surprisingly so may boredom. In a fascinating experiment at the University of Limerick a few years ago, participants were first bored witless by being made to do a repetitive task and then asked to suggest punishments for an imaginary Englishman convicted of beating up an Irishman. The longer they’d spent on the dull task, the more likely they became to bay for blood.

Snarkiness, and lot more

Indeed, perhaps boredom is a major contributor to trolling behaviors that feed online snarkiness. And with online access being relatively cheap and easy, we have a medium tailor made for the predictable array of oft-anonymous jabs, cheap shots, and innuendo that we see on news sites and blogs.

Incivility is one thing, but we know it can get worse, and sometimes much worse. Sadly, it’s unnecessary for me to round up a sampling of how horrible online exchanges can get, ranging from websites and blogs intended to harass or defame, to angry, hateful comments posted to online articles, columns, and blogs, to vicious e-mails containing outlandish allegations or threats of harm.

These communications may be part of orchestrated bullying and mobbing campaigns in school or work settings, or they may be what some people substitute for rational, thoughtful discussion and debate on events and issues of the day. Regardless of their underlying motivations, it’s safe to say that boredom and the Internet are not the main drivers of these horribly excessive behaviors. Rather, they are enablers and conduits for what is contained within the individuals themselves.

Less physical violence, but more psychological aggression?

In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), noted psychologist Steven Pinker offers a thoughtful, provocative argument that physical violence in the world has declined over the years. (Go here for the Wikipedia summary.) Even accepting his main thesis, I find myself wondering if human instincts toward physical violence have been supplanted by tendencies to engage in psychological aggression.

This notion became magnified for me after reading Douglas Preston’s Trial By Fury: Internet Savagery and the Amanda Knox Case (2013), published as a “Kindle Single” extended essay. Here is the publisher’s description of the piece:

The Amanda Knox murder case generated one of the most savage outpourings of commentary the Internet has ever seen. There are countless statements calling for the murdering, raping, torturing, throat-cutting, frying, hanging, electrocution, burning, and rotting in hell of Amanda, along with her sisters, family, friends, and supporters.

. . . Trial By Fury explores this dark netherworld, identifying the people involved, and investigating their motives. It documents the real-world damage caused by these anonymous bloggers, including how they managed to get a much decorated ex-FBI agent fired from his
job. . . .

The author, Douglas Preston, is one of the foremost authorities on the Amanda Knox case. He lived in Italy for many years and is an expert on the Italian criminal justice system. He has spoken about the case on the Today show, Anderson Cooper, 48 Hours, Dateline NBC, and Fox.

Trial By Fury is a disturbing read that will push the buttons of anyone who has been concerned about the tenor of our online discourse. It left me feeling unsettled, wondering how so many people could devote enormous time and emotional energy into such angry, twisted commentary.

Surely we need to address these behaviors, but frankly I don’t have any easy answers. Although Internet culture and online bullying and harassment have received a lot of attention in recent years, I think we need to dig deeper to fully comprehend the phenomenon.


Hat tip to Dr. Ruth Namie for recommending Trial By Fury.

APA launches new webpage on workplace bullying

The American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence has just launched its new webpage of resources for employers and individuals who want to learn more about preventing and responding to workplace bullying:

On this page, you’ll find a collection of workplace bullying resources, including articles and research abstracts, book recommendations, useful statistics and links to other high-quality resources. Check out the short video about workplace bullying, below, and share it with the HR staff and managers in your organization to help get the conversation started.

It was my privilege to serve as a pro bono subject matter expert to the Center and its director, Dr. David Ballard, in developing this page and the accompanying video (see above). Many of these resources will be familiar to long-time readers of this blog, and the APA’s new initiative will highlight them for a far wider range of organizations and workers.

Mental health in the academic workplace

Because mental health issues remain a neglected aspect of the academic workplace, I thought I’d do a quick roundup of websites and blog posts that may be helpful resources for those interested in learning more.

I’ve already written a number of blog posts on workplace bullying in academe, so I won’t revisit that specific topic here. However, I will be pulling together an update on it soon.

Extensive list of resources

Bravo to The Professor Is In blog for assembling this excellent, extensive list of articles, essays, and resources about mental health in the academy last February:

This week I received an email from a reader who had recently been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.  She was asking for resources I might know of to help her navigate her Ph.D. program in light of her mental illness.  I didn’t know of any, so I put out a request on Facebook and Twitter.  The response was instantaneous and big.

I compiled all the recommendations into the following list. As you can see I just cut and pasted directly from the comments on Twitter and Facebook, without elaboration.  They are in no particular order, and I have not yet read most of these and can’t vouch for them.  But many responders also asked to be sent any list of resources I might develop, and I wanted to share the list for the benefit of those who asked.  It seems clear to me that this topic is close to the heart of many.

U.K. site on mental health and higher education

The Mental Health in Higher Education Hub blog is about both mental health in higher education and higher education addressing mental health issues:

Mental Health in Higher Education aims to increase networking and the sharing of approaches to learning and teaching about mental health and distress – across the disciplines in higher education. We have members from across the world.

mhhe is open to educators (including service user and career educators), practice mentors, students, practitioners, educational researchers and all with an interest in enhancing learning and teaching about mental health. Read about our first ten years, on storify.

In the aftermath of a tragedy

In 2010, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece on mental health in academe by Jennifer Ruark, following the tragic multiple homicide at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. I was among those interviewed for the piece.

In conversations on The Chronicle’s Web site and elsewhere, people have seized on the killings as evidence that academic life today is a petri dish for madness: The high stress of the tenure process, the pressures to be brilliant at research and teaching, the cloistered environment, the extent to which internal politics affects people’s careers—it’s a combination that could damage even psychologically healthy people.

Therapy and counseling

The blog Academic Jungle discusses the potential value of therapy and counseling for faculty members:

The book [about mental health] I am reading and the patient cases described therein made me think of all the people whom I have met through the years, mostly in academia, who have had mental or behavioral health issues. I don’t know if academia is rife with mental health problems or whether it is better or worse than any other industry, but I know I have met quite a few people who might have or actually have benefited from some form of therapy.

Graduate student blogs about her experience with depression

Jacqui Shine, a columnist at Chronicle Vitaewrites about her own struggles with depression as a graduate student:

…[A]cademic institutions don’t respond effectively to chronic and invisible disabilities. Folks in my department discouraged me from registering with the university’s disability-services program. They said outright that they couldn’t imagine what kinds of accommodations would actually be useful for me; they implied that registering could potentially stigmatize me.

Past reflections on workplace bullying and worker dignity

Especially with over 1,000 articles now posted to this blog, periodically I like to go back and bring to readers’ attentions past pieces that raised common themes. Here are five for your consideration, and you can read each full post by clicking on the title.

1. How workplace bullying bears similarities to domestic abuse (2011)

When people ask me if workplace bullying is a lot like schoolyard bullying, I typically respond, yes, in a way, but that domestic abuse is the more apt comparison. These are among the reasons why.

2. Can workplace incivility ever be healthy? (2011)

I still find myself having to explain this point in the face of inevitable and understandable pushback:

Those of us who study workplaces generally assume that incivility is a bad thing. . . .

. . . However, there are times when incivility may be an understandable consequence of a disagreement or difference of opinion. Such exchanges — often marked by the use of otherwise rude, harsh, or offensive words – can clear the air, hopefully paving the way toward a healthy resolution.

3. Hope for worker dignity comes out of a union meeting in Massachusetts (2011)

On Thursday, it was my good fortune to be a guest speaker at the monthly Joint Executive Committee meeting of SEIU/NAGE in Massachusetts. . . .

. . . I realize that not all supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill are fans of unions. Some may have had unpleasant personal experiences with them.

True, unions are fallible organizations, like any other kind of group endeavor. And a bad union is just that. But these imperfections render the labor movement no less necessary. A world without organized labor is a world that has declared open season on everyday workers.

4. Helping targets of workplace bullying: The need for an integrated counseling approach (2010)

Many years of talking to targets of severe workplace bullying have reinforced my belief that we need to fashion multifaceted counseling approaches for people who are dealing with this form of abuse.  At least three categories continually intersect . . .

5. Work and Workplaces of a New Decade: Notes on a “Dignitarian” Agenda (2010)

I think we’ve still got a long way to go on the seven points I raised in this piece.

As we turn to a new decade, permit me to set out some notes on a “dignitarian” (to borrow Robert Fuller’s wonderful term) agenda for work and workplaces for the next 10 years.  Obviously this is far from the last word on the subject, but establishing some basic themes may be helpful . . .

WGBH’s “Greater Boston” on workplace bullying and the Healthy Workplace Bill

On Tuesday I was a guest on WGBH’s “Greater Boston” nightly news program, talking about workplace bullying and the Healthy Workplace Bill. I joined program host Emily Rooney, reporter Adam Reilly, and developmental psychologist and consultant Sharon O’Connor for the studio discussion, complemented by interview footage featuring organizational consultant Paula Parnagian, workplace bullying target Shelton Prince, and small business policy advocate Bill Vernon.

It’s about a 12-minute segment.

%d bloggers like this: