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

16 responses

  1. One way I was baited as a target was my supervisor cooly and with total aplomb lying to my face about a matter of some significance. Targets should be aware that some bullies have virtually absolutely no moral restraint on what they will do to bait a target.
    I had enough of these kinds of experience that at this point I would encourage targets to consider whether the person they are being bullied by is an out and out sociopath. Studies show that 1 out of 25 of the population are sociopaths; studies also show that managers have a significanty higher rate of personality disorders than the general work population — and sociopathy is just the most extreme of those personality disorders. I learned the hard way that I had to give up any expectation that I would be treated by my supervisor or the manager above her with any semblance of common decency or any restraint against their blatantly unethical conduct (and the two managers above them conveniently turned a blind eye).. For example, I have no doubt that the supervisor who lied with such aplomb took pride in her being able to do so. What kind of person does that — and on what theory could they possibly be considered the type of employee who is ethically qualified to be a supervisor or manager?
    It is important to remember that when targets are dealing with workplace abuse, we may very well
    be dealing, as in my case, with persons with absolutely no moral compasses — i.e., with deep, unabated corruption — that has an affect of spreading throughout the organization until it becomes
    clearly and overwhelmingly corrupt.
    That was my experience as a senior counsel on the Chairman’s staff of the National Labor Relations
    Board (which eventually led to me being forced to retire based on dishonesty after 34 years of dedicated service)– there are no safe havens: ground zero of employee protection is itself
    morally corrupt.

  2. Gail, your response was inspirational! “No safe havens” needs to changed right now with Healthy Workplace Legislation, Labor Tribunals, Restorative Justice Circles, Community Leaders’ “Good Offices” Interventions, Anti-Bullying Support Groups, and an Anti-Bullying Labor Ombudsperson in every county.


    The concepts of sociopathic and almost-psychopathic inter-personal behavior are at the core of any understanding of workplace bullying. I searched the Workplace Bullying Institute’s website recently with the term “sociopath” and got 20,000 hits.

    I too have had no trouble identifying the workplace bullies I’ve had to endure as sociopaths or almost-psychopaths. Their lack of empathy, and their lying, manipulative, and narcissistic behaviors substantiates my placing them in these “sick puppy” categories. But I think it’s just not that simple, even though it is emotionally satisfying, to pin these labels on them. Like Gail, I’ve experienced the lack of moral conscience metastasizing and spreading throughout the organization.

    More recently I’ve begun to research concepts like “workplace environmental sociopathy,” “organizational sociopathy,” and “authority structure sociopathy.”

    The Milgram experiments, summarized in Milgram’s 1974 article, “The Perils of Obedience,” in which the commands of “authority” caused subjects to subjugate their feelings of empathy and brutally give electric shocks to others, show that certainly more than 1 in 25 are capable of conscienceless behavior if an environment of sociopathic authority is created. In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65 percent of participants, although uncomfortable in doing so, administered the final massive 450-volt shock.

    Unless we have a strong moral core of Self-Authority, whether it is an authoritarian government or an authoritarian workplace, the abuse of power and authority can easily engender sociopathic behavior in otherwise “normal” individuals who out of fear or wanting to belong or weakness tend to be willing supplicants to sociopathic authority and leadership.

    I was just fired from an organization whose sociopathic leadership tendencies had been gradually revealed over the years.

    Sequestration cutbacks were resulting in some, but not all, employees losing a day or two per week. This was not the way our sponsoring state department handled cutbacks. They had a union and everyone took a furlough day once a month. I have always joined unions and I felt for the employees who would struggle financially because of their lost days. I sent around to leadership what I thought was a relevant statement:

    “Perceptions of organizational justice impact productivity and individual well-being. Careers,
    livelihoods and paychecks are at stake, not to mention personal health and dignity.”
    ~ David Yamada

    My supervisor’s response was to call me into a 3 hour meeting where I encouraged him not to cut back her days, but to increase assistance to a disabled and vulnerable employee. I asked the reason some people were cut back and not others. My supervisor told me he didn’t have the “bandwidth” to explain. I then sent around to employees an egalitarian suggestion for spreading around half-day cutbacks to more employees rather than full-days for just a few. Incredibly, sociopathically, my supervisor came up with pretextual excuses to fire me the very next day. And this after 10 years. And it is taxpayers, ultimately, who are going to have to pony up for the retraining costs.

    There may be only 1 in 25 biological or genetic sociopsychopaths. But workplace sociopathic authoritarian leadership can provide the ground for widespread creation of situational sociopsychopathic, sadistic sickos.

  3. I was bullied by my supervisor during the summer of 2009. She pushed my buttons to no end by verbally forcing me to repeat her directions back to her which was against my will. Human Resources and her boss looked the other ways. As a legal expert said, “she baited me,” to get me to stand up for myself which she despised. I suffered financially where I have not been successful in getting a considerable high paying part-time job. It has been five years of financial hardship. However, if Hallmark TV ever wanted a story with a twist. It could be mine as I received a telephone call a week later that a baby boy from Indiana needed a home. My spouse and I left town to pick him up.

  4. Sociopaths, leaders who are not qualified to lead, lack of moral compass, fear, stipend money, weak upper management…these are the elements for a narcissistic bully to manage a mobbing against a target. All efforts are to create such physical and emotional stress to cause the target to say or do something that would be considered insubordinate. Luckily, I learned strategies to survive to protect my psyche and energy from acting out. Ultimately, that fueled the fire and I was removed publicly without reason or protocol. Even though the universe protects you, in the end the supervisors can pen false reports claiming irrational behavior and profanity. Pitiful people without souls or consciousness.

  5. Last week I found this listing of sociopathic behaviors including one that seems to speak directly to Gail’s reply:

    Sociopathic behaviors: charmingly manipulative; lack of conscience; narcissistic; lying; willing to hurt others; no remorse for destructive behavior; inflated sense of self; huge sense of entitlement; lack of empathy; lying for the sake of lying to see whether they can trick people; unempathetic-can’t really imagine or feel the emotional worlds of other people; lack of guilt or shame; lack of anxiety in response to distress of others; impulsivity-acting on the spur of the moment; expert con artists; having secret agendas; creation of an outer, superficial personality; no problem with maintaining uninterrupted eye contact; aggressive; predatory.

    The sociopath lies “for the sake of lying to see whether they can trick people” or, to push people’s buttons, and “maintaining uninterrupted eye contact,” composure, and a certain aplomb while doing so.

    I’ve also experienced this kind of sociopathic behavior.

    A couple of months into my job, I asked a simple question directed to a member of management regarding a previous exchange we had had. In response to my question, he lied; and he knew I knew he lied.

    I was stunned! There seemed to be no reason for lying about this fairly inconsequential matter. I felt he had no respect for me, that he held me in contempt, and that as far as he was concerned, I was just some kind of chopped liver.

    I told my friends, “He was just shining me on, why?” Lying is bullying, it is cruel, it is narcissistic, it’s disrespectful, and it is anti-social, sociopathic behavior. Management’s lying doesn’t make for a workplace happy camper. What it makes is a demotivated employee whose prosocial willingness to trust management has been severely undermined.

    I eventually discussed it with our personnel person, and it never went anywhere. There didn’t seem to be any empathy or understanding of my emotionally having to deal with being shined on and put down.

    A mature, non-sociopath, in this kind of fairly inconsequential matter, could have come back later and said in effect, “I know how you must be feeling because I answered your question inappropriately. Here’s how I should have answered.”

    I may have too high expectations of management, but I’ll quote again David Yamada: “Careers, livelihoods, and paychecks are at stake, not to mention personal health and dignity.”

  6. I have been victimized to the point where I have nobody to turn to and nobody who will help me. I want to die yet will never allow myself to miss out on the good things I know life has to offer. When does it end? When I am dead.? I hate the way I and others have been treated! It sucks the life right out of a soul that is genuine and good.

    • Angela, I’m so very sorry to hear of your experiences and your struggles. I hope that you are seeking assistance to get you through this, including some personal counseling or coaching. You will find some resources in the “Need Help?” page of this blog that may be of help to you. I hope that your overall situation improves significantly and soon. Take good care.

    • Angela I have been there and I know it gets a lot better. I went to my doctor and spoke honestly about what I was going through and I got a lot of help.

    • Oh, Angela. I have been there. I was attacked by a new director who managed to get my employees to engage in unethical behaviors to undermine me. It became a mob in the end and I did lose my job.
      While the single most painful time period in my professional career, I found that I had a big God and in times of my deepest despair, He began to re-build my self worth and He has lead me to a better job and given me a whole new perspective on forgiveness.
      There is healing in God’s word. Find yourself a warm and friendly church family to love you unconditionally and get into the Bible every day and allow him to heal you.

  7. Angela – just leave. There is no amount of money that’s worth your well being and safety. I assure you, I know – up until a month ago, I was employed by a woman who not only condoned bullying at work, she mandated it. Constant headaches, nausea, actual vomiting at the thought of work, fear, stress – I was not the person that I used to be, and my relationships suffered. My team saw all of it, but couldn’t say anything for fear of retaliation. I left. And although I’m broke, and am having to appeal IDES decision of denying me for UE benefits, I finally feel like I’m getting back to normal. The only thing I have left to conquer is the PTSD and feeling that it’ll be the same scenario in my next assignment – which seems crazy, I know – but it’s how I feel.

    Talk to someone about all of this, a therapist can work wonders, as can your family and friends. You aren’t alone.

  8. The “Button Pushers” in the workplaces of this world are always on the lookout for a target that shows some small vulnerabilities that they can pounce on driving that persons insecurities even deeper. These types of bullies have caused even the most competent of workers to think twice about their ability to do their jobs in a professional manner.

    Even though the workplace button pusher is very proficient at causing you to question your abilities with self doubt, there are certain things you can do to alleviate the pain and get yourself back on track again in spite of what the bully does or the other tactics he might use on you.

    As mentioned several times in this post and other comments, it is vital that you seek professional help before it affects your physical and mental health. It is also necessary for you to continually “practice” building and re-building your self confidence. Setting up boundaries will help a lot here, just let the BP (button pusher) know that you won’t stand for any more of their outrageous behavior.

    If you still have trouble keeping up your self esteem and can’t cope with getting your buttons pushed all the time then please consider leaving before it causes so much stress that you become physically ill over it. It is not worth your emotional or physical health to stay in a job like that.

  9. My bully would employ an effort of overwhelm. He would e-mail me a demand, call me with that demand and, as I was even reading the first email… another supervisor would be at my door convinced that I hadn’t responded in sometime. As I explained to her what was happening the phone would ring and 4 more e-mails would come in and another supervisor would be standing in the door way wondering why I was “making a scene” — it is hard not to lose it in such circumstances. I wonder if this bullying behavior is more common where a pension is involved. Employers know you will not want to leave and leaving will cost you a lot. So they are free to bully you.

    Angela leave. I only stayed because I knew mine had to retire at a certain age. If not for that I would have left.

  10. I had to draw the line with a button pusher (BP). My manager suggested I close my office door to set clear boundaries. I need to stay focused and productive, and if the BP’s team continues to be as effective as they are, the BP will have to shape up, or ship out. Thank you for this forum. I am feeling more solid now.

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