Anxiety and the Office Bully

Start with a newly promoted manager who has little to no experience supervising others.  Add a high pressure work environment – perhaps the threat of layoffs, unrealistic deadlines, etc.  Throw in a lack of training and direction and voila!   Before you know it, the tension level has reached powder keg proportions.

“Anxiety is a mean teacher,” was one of my colleague’s favorite expressions.  She knew, as does anyone who’s suffered with it, that the constant irritability, tension and energy drain that accompany anxiety can loosen just about anyone’s self-control.

The Different Faces of Social Anxiety

A socially anxious employee may be able to function very well as long as s/he concentrates on the technical tasks at hand.  However, when s/he is “rewarded” with a promotion, s/he is forced to find new coping strategies.  New research suggests that there is a subset of socially anxious workers who cope with their fears by acting out in aggressive, risky ways; it’s almost as if they hide their anxiety by adapting a bullying persona.

In fact, it’s my bet that, the higher you go up the corporate ladder, the less likely we are to see social anxiety expressed in the typical shy, inhibited way and the more likely it is to manifest itself in a controlling, domineering interpersonal style.  This coping strategy reduces anxiety in the short-term, yet it causes significant interpersonal problems as time goes on.

What’s your Problem?

For these individuals, what’s misunderstood as the real problem – the inappropriate behavior – is actually the coping strategy for the fear of failure and of being judged that’s driving them.  Now, don’t get me wrong; bullying is bullying is bullying and there needs to be clear limits on, and consequences for, inappropriate behavior in the workplace.  What this does suggest, though, is that these individuals are coachable; teach them how to manage their anxiety and their behavior will improve.  On the other hand, relying solely on discipline isn’t going to work because the “real” problem is still there.

The Bottom Line

Most people who suffer from social anxiety aren’t bullies and what drives most bullies isn’t social anxiety.  However, the fact that the motive behind some bullying behavior is an attempt to cope with fear suggests that not all bullies are created equally.  If you have a highly skilled manager who’s alienating employees with his abrasive interpersonal style, it’s worth a shot to get him or her some coaching before you give him/her the boot – and before s/he’s wreaked so much havoc that employees no longer have the capacity to forgive and forget.

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6 Comments on “Anxiety and the Office Bully”

  1. […] Workrelationships' Blog helping HR relieve stress, create better managers, avoid employee lawsuits, and have more fun « Anxiety and the Office Bully […]

  2. Jane MacKenzie Says:

    what is your right if you are being bullied at work and are off on sick leave because of it. you can’t go to the boss she is the one doing the bulling so who do you go to or what can you do. She treaten to ruin my life around town.

    • Janie, It is very difficult to offer advice without knowing more about your situation. However, you might talk to your human resource rep to see what can be done about the problem. You might also go to your boss’s boss but I would not do this without carefully considering the potential ramifications and getting a second and third opinion from trusted colleagues who know your situation.

      • Hello Janie,

        I agree that it is indeed difficult to offer advice without knowing more about your situation. Depending on where you live however, you may find that discussing your matter with local authorities will be helpful. Not only will they inform you of your legal rights, they will be able to refer you to other organizations or groups for help and/or support.

        As a self help, I recommend the book, Toxic People, by Lillian Glass. Dr. Glass not only helps people identify the toxic people in their lives, but also provides techniques for successfully dealing with them.

        I have worked as an HR Consultant and Business Coach for 20+ years; my experience is that bullies cloak themselves very well and are unfortunately, difficult to “catch in the act.”

        Having said this, I must also add however, that unless victims are able to examine their own reactions to the bullying, they may not be able to ACCURATELY identify the inappropriate behaviors inflicted on them… and as you know, without being able to identify the behavior (exactly), you hardly stand a chance of being heard.

        To that end, educate yourself, and seek help outside your workplace. Sad to say, if that doesn’t work, you may have to change jobs.

  3. It is really a nice and helpful piece of information. I’m glad that you just shared this useful information with us. Please stay us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

  4. It’s nearly impossible to find knowledgeable people for this topic, but you seem like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

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