Why Most People Don’t Want To Take On Bullies

Why Most People Don’t Want To Take On Bullies

Bullying is a big issue in the workplace, amongst professionals and within professional training programs and associations and lots of other areas of our lives. Our earliest experiences of bullying usually occurs at home or at school.

What’s fascinating is the reluctance of people to take on a bully, regardless of their title, education, professional standing and level of power that they hold in the workplace, or in society.


Because bullying usually triggers limbic brain flight or freeze (and rarely fight) responses. It instantly takes people to earlier memories of being bullied themselves.

So instead of taking on the bully and immediately sorting it out, they revert to head in the sand “ostrich syndrome”, hoping the problem will just go away.

It’s because of the way our brains have evolved. In evolutionary terms, the reflective part of our brain that can look at things more objectively is the most recent part of our brain to have evolved. So it’s the most vulnerable. It’s the first area of our brain to get shut down and compromised when the more primitive, hard-wired and reactive fight, flight or freeze parts take over when triggered by a perceived danger or threat. These primitive parts of our brain are ancient, hard-wired and much faster at processing information because their sole function is to keep you alive and away from danger and threat.

Bullies work by traumatizing their prey. It’s how they’ve been wired neurologically and in their nervous system to deal with conflict, set backs, and feelings like envy, inferiority and frustration. Because most bullies come from a background of trauma and abuse, having been bullied themselves – whether at home or school.

Narcissism lies at the core of serial bullies, with a glaring inability to see anyone other than themselves.

Bullies expect other people to behave according to their rules and view of the world. They have an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement and become enraged when other people don’t meet their demands, or say “No” to them.

And because of the way our brains are designed, when bullied, most people freeze in their responses and thinking, being taken instantly back to earlier memories of being bullied or disempowered as a child, unable to draw on the more reflective, objective and solution-focused parts of their brain.

How Bullying Plays Out In The Workplace

Here are 3 classic examples of how bullies operate at work:

  1. Bullies hate other people putting forward ideas or approaches that don’t align with their agendas or power plays. When someone puts forward a different approach, the bully then looks for ways to retaliate. Usually finding ways to publicly criticise and put this person down in front of their superiors, colleagues, or peers – verbally or via email. Bullies thrive on smear campaigns as a means of restoring their wounded egos and view of how other people should treat them and behave.
  2. Bullies see someone else with more talent as a major threat. It triggers issues around their own self worth and puffed up sense of importance and entitlement. This often snowballs into acts of destructive envy. The bully sets out to pull this person down by undermining, bullying and spreading malicious gossip about them behind their back.
  3. Bullies are divisive and manipulative. They set out to enlist weaker personalities so that they can play a numbers game to further intimidate and alienate their target. Because bullies rely on external validation for their sense of self and self-esteem, they need “supporters” and “enablers” in order to thrive.

7 Ways To Spot A Serial Bully

7 ways to spot a serial bully

Image by Viktor Hanacek

Serial bullies have a distinct behavioural profile and modus operandi. Most people don’t even know what this is. Knowing how to identify a bully’s behavioural patterns helps you to be able to deal with them from an empowered position by getting support and setting appropriate boundaries. Here are 7 ways to spot a serial bully at work, in groups, or in your relationships:

  1. One of the first warning signs that a bully is in your sphere is the conspicuous repetitive trail of stories of drama, run-ins and disputes with other people and organisations. They either tell you this directly, or you’re alerted to this by other people. You need to stop and mentally flag this before you proceed any further in your dealings with them. Avoid joining “their club”.
  2. Bullies are highly narcissistic so when they’re directly confronted over their behaviour, they refuse to see or own their role in events. Rather than being accountable, they’ll duck and weave around the truth and twist events so that they’re seen as the victim. Because with bullies it’s always someone else’s fault. But the common denominator in all of their stories and dramas is “them”.
  3. Bullies try to strip you down, shame, defame and humiliate you in private and often in front of others, the wider the audience the better.
  4. Bullies resort to strong-arm tactics to intimidate. They’ll even threaten physical violence if you don’t agree to their demands.
  5. Bullies torment their prey by stalking in person, by phone, or cyber stalking (all criminal offences) or by sending personally attacking emails in an attempt to further intimidate and persecute.
  6. Empathy is not in the skill set of bullies. They have little to no capacity for self-insight.
  7. It’s impossible to reason with a bully in a logical and rational way, because they’ll always try and draw you and others into their “story” and version of events.

I’ve seen bullying across a lot of different situations, both when coaching private clients and in the workplace. I’ve also experienced it in action in professional training programs and associations and like most people, bullying was a playground dynamic at school. Repeatedly in all of these situations, no one was prepared to take on the bully head-on.

Most people in the workplace, including those in roles of influence, often just hope the bully will one day disappear and go and annoy someone else. The bully is the “hot potato” problem that everyone just wants to pass on.

But every time a bully isn’t taken on, people are silently colluding and enabling them. Passing them on to other unsuspecting people and organisations.

Taking On A Bully

taking on a bully

Image by Joshua Earle

Only once in my career as a change consultant have I ever seen a bully in the workplace taken on immediately and directly. It was refreshing and inspiring to see. My client at the time, a senior level executive, had a member of his team bullied by someone else in the organisation.

This time the bully had picked the wrong person.

My client had no qualms about going straight to the bully and drawing a clear line in the sand. He was physically fit, confident and quite at home dealing with bullies. He was able to think clearly, objectively and therefore take quick, correct action. The problem was immediately addressed and not left to fester and it was back to business as usual. The bully had been put back in his place. There were no future attempts to bully anyone on this person’s team.

Unfortunately this is not the norm with serial bullies. Organisations are usually slow to respond, particularly if the person concerned is considered to be a major “rain-maker”. Things usually hit crisis point before correct action is followed.

I believe that a big part of the problem is that most people aren’t familiar with the behavioural patterns of serial bullies. Unless you grew up street-wise and with rat-like cunning.

I hope you now you have a clearer picture as to what a serial bully looks like in action. It’s important that you know that being bullied isn’t something you should be trying to deal with privately on your own. Because most likely you’re one in a long line of many others that this bully has tried to intimidate. Just knowing this fact alone can be a valuable reality-check and re-empower you to take appropriate action. Always seek help if you or someone you know is being harassed by a bully. Bullying is not something to try and resolve on your own.

Copyright © 2015 Janelle Legge

Title Image by Samuel Zeller


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