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.
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.
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 psdgraphics.com