How do bullies bully?

Emotional needs are triggered

Bullying is often triggered by change e.g. the arrival of a new employee, introduction of new targets etc. The changes make a potential bully feel insecure and inadequate; his/her emotional needs are not being met in a given situation and so he/she is unable to contain and work through anxieties without ‘hurting’ others.


Bullies use a range of defensive actions e.g. denial, and fantasy. They also use splitting. Splitting is a primitive form of defence in which individuals perceive their worlds in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. They want to keep the good for themselves and to get rid of their inner feelings of ‘badness’ on to others. Senior managers may only see the ‘good’ side of a bully’s Jekyll and Hyde nature, yet behind the facade the bully may be quietly ‘killing off’ colleagues.

Boundary testing

Bullies test the boundaries of colleagues by denying them information, setting them up to fail etc. In trying to find ‘containers’ for their anxieties they develop an overriding need to control others. They often ‘nit pick’, focussing on seemingly trivial or petty actions of others, thereby losing the overall picture.


A bully tries to get rid of his, or her, anxieties by projecting them on to a victim. The victim becomes a ‘container’, or ‘garbage can’, for the bully’s anxieties. Once bullying begins it is very difficult to stop as the behaviour has a deep addictive quality to it.

Feeding an addiction

Having projected his, or her, anxieties, on to a target - who then becomes a victim i.e. a container of the anxieties, - the bully feels better. The victim is now perceived as a failure etc but the bully’s good feelings don’t last long. As one victim is discarded, others are found to feed the addiction. Bullying will continue until firm boundaries are set around the bully and space given for reflection.