Inside the Bully’s Brain

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

“I throw up every day before work now,” Karen said in her therapy session.  “When I hear his voice, I shake.  I can’t sleep, I’ve lost weight.  This job is KILLING ME! ”  she cried.  Karen worked for a bullying boss who’s recent tirades escalated to an unbearable level.  The last straw for Karen occurred when her boss stomped up behind her and slammed a large  report binder on her desk, startling her.  “What is this CRAP!” he shouted. The loud noise, the abruptness and hostility of that event caused her to scream and run crying out of the office.

In a recent study of both private and public companies, 25% of workplaces reported some occurrence of bullying in the past year.  The Orlando Business Journal estimates that workplace bullying costs companies $140 million per year in lost time and productivity.  The Workplace Bullying Institute estimates that a Fortune 500 company can lose $24 million in turnover and lost productivity and $1.4 million in additional litigation and settlement costs for one unresolved bullying problem.

A University of Chicago study looked at fMRI scans of the brains of conduct disordered bullies.  When shown video clips of accidental and intentional infliction of pain, the amygdala and ventral striatum lit up with activity.  These brain structures respond to pleasure.  It’s not surprising that some highly aggressive people do get a kick out of hurting others and lack empathy.  This study received criticism for generalizing from a very small sample of very aggressive teens.  Not all bullies lack empathy or behave in a physically aggressive manner.  Personality differences influence the way the brain perceives reality.  One study showed that socially shy introverts tend to focus on the negative  while confident and comfortable extroverts zero in on positive stimuli.  When a confident, competitive, extroverted boss supervises a shy, sensitive introverted employee a collision of conflicting realities can provoke an HR complaint for bullying.

The Type A  personality, known for hostile, impatient, competitive characteristics (think Rahm Emanuel) can get a reputation for office bully.  One client of mine complained about her bullying boss’s poor phone etiquette.  “I ask her how she’s doing and she just blasts me with questions about work.  She never asks how I’m doing.”  I asked her to imagine what pressures might her boss feel that could cause a sensible person to behave that way.  She said, “Well, she might have pressure from her boss.”  I noticed that my client had a slow, casual way of speaking. “Perhaps your slow, casual style mixed with your tendency to ask personal questions may convey to your boss that you aren’t serious about work.”  I suggested that she try two things the next time her boss calls.  Match her boss’s sense of urgency by speaking quickly and firmly and only on the subject the boss brings up.  And second, don’t bring up personal conversation unless the boss does.  We met a week later.  “It worked great!  I just tried speaking quickly and only about work.  After that she asked how I was doing and seemed warm and friendly.”  When my client projected the same sense of urgency her boss showed, it helped the boss feel she had an ally not a drag on her workload.

Studies show that victims and bullies share common characteristics.  Both possess poor problem solving skills within social situations.  Often victims and bullies both grew up in hostile homes.  While assertiveness might improve a relationship, instead the bully uses intimidation and the victim practices avoidance or passive-aggressive behavior.  Jay Schneider,  in his Manage Anger Daily class says,  “When you feel like a victim you act like an abuser.”  Most bullies were once victims.

Victoria Pynchon in her book, A is For Asshole: The Grownups ABC’s of Conflict Resolution, writes that a bully, “is not a person but a behavior and not one person but two.”  When we demonize a bully we often fail to see the whole person in context.  If we see the victim as always innocent sometimes we rob that person of the opportunity to learn an important coping skill in life.

We recommend a three-pronged approach to workplace bullying:

  1. Help the bully learn effective self-management skills like anger and stress management, conflict resolution, communication and diversity training.
  2. Help victims of bullying learn assertiveness, resilience, stress management and conflict resolution skills.
  3. Bring in a third party to resolve the dispute.

Most workplace bullying problems require intervention by a third party to fully resolve the matter.  Once a bully/victim dynamic becomes entrenched in a workplace it’s difficult for the people involved to stop the impending train wreck without a serious course correction.  Sometimes, if the bully or the victim gets help on their own, they can change the dynamic at work.  It takes some serious effort.  My client, Karen, tried my suggestions with surprising results.

I coached Karen to confront her boss.  We practiced how she would walk into her bosses office and stand over him, assuming a power position.  She memorized a short speech.  “Do not ever approach me from the back and throw something on my desk like that.  It is rude, alarming and disrespectful to me.  I will no longer put up with being yelled at while I’m at work.  It is not acceptable and does not help me do my job effectively.  Your behavior in the office lately has been disgraceful and must stop.”  I asked Karen to call me and let me know how her meeting went.  “You will not believe what happened!” Karen said.  “I was shaking and felt like I was going to throw up but I did the speech and said some more stuff.  I can’t believe it!  He put his head down and started to cry.  He CRIED!  He said his wife just left him a month ago because of his anger.  He apologized to me and begged me not to go to HR because he could lose his job.  I felt so bad for him.  All of a sudden he wasn’t this mean monster, he was just a sad, scared man.  Do you know what happened next?”  “What happened?” I asked.  “He stood up and said he was sorry again, and he looked so sad I just hugged him and told him it was going to be alright. Then we smiled at each other and I left and went to my desk.”  She actually hugged her bully.   Have you hugged your bully today?