Compliments of Leo Reynolds via Flickr

Have you ever wondered why some people engage in “serial bullying,” when it’s common knowledge that this behavior is unacceptable? Pinker, in his book “The Better Angels of our Nature,” describes this anomaly. He asks if “our inner perpetrator white washes our crimes…in a campaign to exonerate ourselves.” He makes a case that those who commit heinous acts rationalize the reasons by exaggerating their perceived injury (and culpability of the victim) in a way that paints them as wronged.

I once had a friend tell me “I didn’t lie, but I told the truth in a funny way.” This is what bullies do when they lie to themselves about their role in violence at work. People who pick on others distort their role in problem creation primarily by blaming the victim – by pointing out how weak and incompetent he/she is, and how their own rights were trampled in the process.

Bullies are quick to tell you how they feel so their opinion is out front. They exhibit a sociopathy that causes them to harass again and again. Their motives are never examined, and they fail to see events in perspectives other than their own.

The self defense mechanism of trying to make ourselves look better is disproportionately evident in bruisers. Pinker refers to this as the moralization gap, in which people try to portray in their own mind their “best reflected self,” which is displayed in an outward fashion to other people.

This twice baked fabrication makes the perpetrator more confident, and his lie more plausible. A conscious self who chooses to lie and a subconscious mind that knows the truth comprise a type of split personality. In auspicious circumstances, the vicious side peers out of wraps to rear its ugly head. This occurs when the bully perceives a peer lower in status with which there would be few repercussions – someone with whom he feels ‘safe.’

In reality we all rationalize (to a degree) to protect ourselves from unpleasantness. This tendency is exaggerated in those who let their reptilian brain run the show. Incendiary attacks on innocent civilians can only be rationalized if the subject is self-righteous. If the seeds of bad behavior are in fact psychological, then instead of throwing our dirty laundry at other people we should take it out and examine it first. Below are some suggestions to prevent collateral damage:

  • Think before you speak. Bullies lack a filter on their tongues. Before you inflict a round of verbal bullets, count to five. Consider whether you would want someone to act in a similar fashion toward you.
  • Mentally rehearse what you’re going to say. Some cultures “roll the words on their tongue” several times before speaking (to avoid offending the recipient). To this end social circumspection is an excellent idea. 
  • Keep in mind that an attack on someone else can leave a lasting impact – including PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Although “unloading” may make you feel better, the negative barrage can work at cross purposes in your target. Remember you’re engaging a colleague, not arresting a suspect.
  • Consider your workplace as a community. If your department is indeed a space where all individuals are working toward a common goal, then hurting one member will result in diminishing the final product. It’s the responsibility of top management to create a sense of connectedness through (1) focus on meta-goals, and (2) establishment of policies to mandate civil rapport.
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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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One Response
  1. Nice reading. Some useful information and good food for thought.

  2. Charles Barnett on January 17th, 2012 at 10:46 am