In Defense Of Bullies … Sort Of

By Darrin Tonsfeldt
The Village Business Institute

Is there an epidemic of bullies in the workplace or is this just the infliction of the month of which the popular media is most enamored? I have no doubt about the existence of bullies in workplaces and schools, but I’m not sure they are the “lesser human beings” they are often made out to be.

Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman produced a series of interviews with Canadian physician and bestselling author, Dr. Gabor Mate’, some of which made me think about bullying in a different way. Mate’ presents his thoughts about how society highly values genetics as the explanation or reason for behaviors—and seems to undervalue or ignore how adverse circumstances contribute to unhealthy development. Do we put too much blame on the bully when we think of it as a genetic fault, and not enough on the adverse circumstances that forged the bully’s perspective of the world?

According to Dr. Mate’ we are born with undeveloped brains and whether it is addiction, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder or bullying [my addition], a child who is neglected, abused, and/or abandoned will develop behaviors that seek to relieve pain. So kids who grow up with no real connection to others or who have no sense of being loved can grow into adults who are demanding, attention seeking, compulsive, and obsessive in ways that never seem to satisfy them. Ever worked with someone like that? Did you think they were a bully?

My sense, based on the work I have done with companies and employees, is that there are more bullies and toxic persons in the workplace than ever, and not just because the world’s population has grown. It has, in my opinion, more to do with there being more socially and intimately disconnected people than ever before.

A large number of kids are raised, or spend significant time with, non-familial care givers—but that alone will not create a bully. It’s when the parent does come home and they are stressed out, exhausted, angry and more interested in meeting their own needs than spending time with their child that those little brains pick up on their parent/s emotions and, in a nutshell, feel pain. I have met many a person labeled as a bully who felt justified in their behavior because to them their actions were just about protecting themselves from more pain.

In the most serious cases of abuse a child can grow into an adult that is alexithymic (does not have the ability to express feelings with words). They do not recognize how they are feeling or how others are feeling and have difficulty understanding the emotional states and needs of others. Some bullies understand they are hurting others and feel justified in doing so because they feel their hurt is greater. Others simply do not understand that their actions are creating pain to those they are bullying.

So do we just put up with the actions of bullies? Of course not. But I also don’t think we should ostracize them or make them out to be lesser human beings. There are things we can do to protect employees from bullying behavior and to help the employee who has acted in a bullying fashion. I will address some of those approaches in my next post.

About the blogger
Darrin Tonsfeldt has a background of program administration, employee supervision, and clinical experience, as well as 20 years of experience in organization consulting and planning. He provides oversight of The Village Business Institute, Regional Counseling Services, and Financial Resource Center programs. He also provides consulting services that include strategic planning; career, leadership, management, and executive coaching; corporate training and group facilitation; crisis response in the workplace; and organizational consulting.