Why do bullies often accuse victims of bullying them?

Bullies are often unaware of their behaviour and the impact they are having on others.

They projected their unacknowledged, and unwanted, anxieties on to colleagues. They deny those feelings once belonged to themselves and claim someone else (the victim) has them.

But when aggression is projected outwards it can round back on itself in a persecutory manner. Being in denial, the bully then feels persecuted by the anxieties which he, or she, projected on to the victim.

In the ‘eyes' of the bully - the victim becomes ‘the bully’. Bully and victim appear to have switched roles. This can seem very confusing for mediators and others trying to resolve the conflict.

Is bullying in the workplace different from bullying in schools?

Essentially bullying is the same dynamic whether it is at work, in the playground, or in the home (For further information see the literature review). It is a defensive response and shows the inability of an individual to acknowledge his/her inner feelings and work through anxieties. Whatever age, bullies project anxieties on to others and test boundaries to find ‘containers’ for their anxieties. Perceptions of that person (the container) become fixed or grid locked in a negative way.

Is there more bullying now than in the past?

We don’t know. The first research into workplace bullying was carried out in Scandinavia in the 1980s. It is only in the past ten years researchers have developed and used standardised tests, such as NAQ-R (Negative Acts Questionnaire) with which to compared statistics from year to year and from country to country.

From the 1950’s to 1980’s, in the UK, initiation rites were often used to test whether new employees could take a joke, be ‘a man’ and be part of the group. They were used in many different organisations e.g. on building sites, in kitchens, hospitals, offices, and factory shop floors. Today these rites would be perceived as physical or psychological bullying.

In countries where there is an awareness of bullying in the workplace, levels of physical violence appear to have diminished within organisations.

However, psychological bullying is likely to occur when changes in society and organisations bring about greater insecurity. These changes include:-

  • Increased pace of change.
  • Increased individualisation.
  • Excessive target cultures.
  • Excessive short term planning at the expense of longer term gains.
  • Fear of job security.
  • Greed culture.
  • Image creation based on celebrity cultures - fostering object fixation.
  • Greater mobility of society giving rise to less clarity and stability of roles.
  • Break up of family structures into more fluid and flexible but also more complex forms.

Can anyone become a bully?

Almost anyone can find themselves behaving in a way that tests the boundaries of others in a non-constructive way. However a distinguishing feature of a bully is the lack of ‘empathy’.  Bullies do not empathise with their victims.

Why do you describe those employees who experience bullying ‘victims’, why not call them ‘targets’?

Over the years there have been demands from some victims to replace the word ‘victim’ with that of ‘target’. However many individuals are targets of bullying but do not necessarily become victims. A target becomes a victim when he/she introjects, or internalises, the projections from the bully. 

When does management become bullying?

Managers bully their colleagues when they are unable to manage their own anxieties, the anxieties generated with teams and within the culture of the organisation. They project those anxieties on to others in a way which is not beneficial to their colleagues, the group and to the organisation as a whole.

Why has cyberbullying become such a problem?

In cyberspace there are very few boundaries between the bully and victim. The victim is constantly accessible - in time, 24/7 and space - any location. The immediacy of cyberbullying brings instant gratification for the bully, it is a quick fix.

Conflicts can arise more quickly than in face to face interactions. Non verbal clues are often missing. There is a greater dependency on 'words'.

Victims need to remember that the abuse/insults says more about the abuser’s immaturity and lack of social skills, than it does about the victim.  Bullies are trying to meet their inner needs whether they bully on line, or in work, or school.

EU kids on line project found that 60% of cyberbullies were traditional bullies.  30% of cyber victims were traditional victims.  85% of the time, the victim knows the bully (www.cyberbullying.us).

Is bullying always intentional?

Sometimes it is deliberate but much of the time it is a defensive response at subconscious or unconscious levels. Some bullies are overtly aggressive, others are more covert or subtle in their actions. There is a range of responses all relating at deeper levels to their frustrations and feelings e.g. of potential shame, or envy.

Can there be bullying without a bully?

No. The term institutional bullying is one which is frequently used but institutions don’t bully, people do. Bullying sometimes becomes so ingrained in the culture and systems of an organisation that it becomes a way of life for employees.  Usually there is a loss of ‘voice’, fear of speaking out and even asking basic questions. Employees may become seemingly powerless to take action, ‘bystanders’ in the gradual deterioration of ethical, moral and effective management.

When does tough talking by a manager become bullying?

When the bully won’t listen. When the accusations are personalised. When there is inconsistency in demands. Where there is a lack of trust.