Are you (unknowingly) enabling a bully?
Thank you for spreading the word about this newsletter and for your continuing support of my work. Your paid subscription acknowledges the value and impact of my work. If the content resonates with you, please consider a monthly or annual paid subscription.
If a paid subscription isn’t an option for you right now, please consider sharing my content with your networks to support their narcissism hacking efforts.
I was recently asked why I’m fascinated by bullies and bullying. Despite it being a harmful manifestation of interpersonal narcissism, I’d been curious about how a group of adolescents and adults can become weapons and shields against a bully’s target.
A desire to feel included, accepted and to belong to a group, and to feel important to its leader, is primal. All the groups I’d been part of growing up were never led by me but had me as a loyal follower until I did or didn’t do something that got me ousted.
The worst experiences were in groups of girls who shared the same cultural background as me and yet, our common ground wasn’t enough to protect me against the humiliation, exclusion and ostracisation I experienced throughout adolescence. In graduate school, I witnessed familiar group dynamics that prompted me to ask:
What’s causing reasonable, somewhat stressed out, intelligent women going through a similar phase of life to form and participate in a toxic group?
Why do we appoint or accept a leader in situations where one isn’t required and who inevitably can’t handle the power they wield?
These questions ultimately led me to interpersonal narcissism - inequality in relationships through the use of domination, control and assimilation tactics in order, to assimilate into the form that an authority figure requires for their own comfort, control, attention and power.
One of my earliest and most read pieces outlined how to tell you’re dealing with a malignant narcissistic person either in your workplace, social network or personal relationships. You can also retitle it to “How to spot a bully with malignant narcissistic traits”. These pieces are popular because readers want to be able identify and diagnose the Persecutor. There’s comfort in knowing who the bad guy is and believing you’re not one of them.
While we focus all our attention on the problematic person, we also ignore what everyone else in the context is doing or not doing. Where there’s a bully, there are conditions in place that enable a bully to exist and to flourish that go beyond their recruited flying monkeys. A bully in a workplace or social group can only exist because the necessary conditions involving a group of people are present that enable someone to bully others.
In this premium piece, I will describe the behaviours of the bully, the behaviours of unwitting enablers and flying monkeys, the conditions that promote bullies to flourish and conditions that prevent enabling a bully. The final section on how to avoid becoming a bully’s enabler is for premium content subscribers.
What is a bully?
Let’s first get on the same page about the definition of a bully. According to the National Centre Against Bullying, “bullying is an ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power, or perceived power, over one or more persons who feel unable to stop it from happening.”
I don’t believe all bullies intend hostility. A bully can believe their status is under threat by their target, and intend self-defence and protection of their territory and reputation through the harmful actions that make them a bully.
The bully and enabler relationship
I wanted to invite others to learn about their experiences of a bully by asking readers the question:
Does a bully wield power alone?
The short answer is ‘NO’.
Once the bully identifies the target, they use a number of weapons to weaken and eventually eliminate the threat (ie. the target) while taking advantage of the conditions that make bullying possible.
Let’s consider a workplace context where the bully is someone in a position of power and authority, such as a C-suite executive or an upper level manager. The bully is hidden as long as others treat them as the authority, comply with their demands, and ensure they are well represented within and beyond the organisation.
The conditions in this scenario is that there is a hierarchical social structure. The bully has a high degree of power due to their high status and the authority it gives them. They also have personality traits that reinforce authority such as charisma, likability, quick-witted, intimidating, confidence and arrogance. These attributes tend to conceal a fragile ego, incompetence, insecurity, poor stress management and deep inadequacy. Those on adjacent and lower rungs defer to this person’s authority, despite this person having limited knowledge or expertise in areas that their adjacent or lower status colleagues have. They feel powerful by their proximity to this authority figure who is also a bully.
The authority/bully, much like the narcissistic dominant parent of a family, functions to maintain the social order and restore order when it has been disrupted. Those who have the closest proximity to the authority based on the level of trust the bully has toward them, regardless of their actual status in the workplace, serve to also maintain the social order and protect the authority/bully.
The bully persona surfaces when their status is at risk or their authority has been questioned or momentarily diminished. The person perceived to challenge the status of the authority/bully has now aroused suspicion of the bully, that they become mentally demoted from loyal and trustworthy subordinate to betraying target. Once the target is identified, the bully unleashes their weapons of devaluation to punish the target’s disloyalty and use the target as an example to warn others against falling out of line.
Here’s another scenario that involves a non-hierarchical social group. This can include a social media community who gather frequently online, a temporary group gathering (ie. workshop, conference, forum) or a friend group. A non-hierarchical group is usually absent of a clear authority figure, though there might be one or two members who initiate gatherings for the purpose of socialising, informal knowledge sharing/discussions or intentional learning. Sometimes the founder of the group is considered the authority but use a democratic leadership approach to gatherings. Everyone is responsible for maintaining respectful interactions and self-correcting behaviour.
In this scenario, one of the members begins to contribute more frequently and direct the conversation to their topic of interest. They also spend more time interacting with the assumed authority to gain their favour, build rapport and trust. The intent is to access important, high status and interesting people through infiltrating the authority’s network. They gradually assert their authority in the group through frequent access to the community members, grooming or enthralling the authority and other members, gaining the authority’s trust and confidence, infiltrating the network and initiating group gatherings.
They will employ the same tactics as above in order to form a hierarchical social order by targeting the existing perceived authority, creating division in the group, eroding trust among members, stoking discord and demoralisation, and group destruction.
While it appears they did all the work, the unwitting participation of most group members who yielded power to the bully was sufficient to empower the bully.
Summary of the conditions and weapons used to be a successful bully
The conditions necessary for a successful bully are:
Hierarchical social order
A clear authority figure
Intimidated, indifferent or entranced bystanders or enablers
Enablers who yield power to an authority to make decisions and take actions on their behalf
Silence and inaction during public humiliation due to emotional paralysis (freeze mode), fear of disobedience, losing status and becoming the next target
Enablers stroking the bully’s ego, aligning with their position and avoiding giving honest and critical feedback (sycophantic)
Mob mentality to secure their position and status with the bully, not the target
Diffusion of responsibility preventing anyone in the group from acting in the best interest of the group, including shielding the target from the bully’s attacks
Enablers’ phoney displays of support to the target downplaying the severity of the attacks, gaslighting, toxic positivity or naively encouraging target to report their grievances.
Dependence of the institution or the group’s success on the bully
The weapons intended to weaken and eliminate the target are:
Public charming and amicable behaviour toward high status/proximity people/enablers to maintain loyalty and trust
Private intimidation, threats, criticism and micromanagement of the target
Public humiliation to put target in their place at the same time as sending a warning to the group of what to expect should they also cross a line
Devaluation of target by reputation assassination, false accusations and emotional manipulation of enablers/bystanders to erode confidence and trust others have of the target
Exclusion of the target from important communication, meetings, social gatherings to eventual shunning
Deprivation of responsibilities and social interactions, constant criticism and questioning expertise/work activities to devalue the target and erode their own self-confidence and perception of competence
These lists aren’t exhaustive so please feel free to add anything I’ve missed in the comments below.
The Bully’s Relationship with Authority
A bully can act out in two ways. If they:
occupy a position of status and authority in a group, they will feel compelled to assert their authority when it’s challenged or disturbed.
have equal status to others in the group, they will likely object to the authority of the group if the authority isn’t valued as an ideal authority, challenge the existing devalued authority, intervene as the superior authority, and attempt to create a new social order.
The bully is a paradox. They fluctuate between passive and aggressive behaviours as well as dark tetrad traits when they feel like they can’t trust the authority in the room or act respectfully to please the idealised authority or to please the ones they intend to dominate.
They love authority when they have it and despise the authority that they can’t idealise.
The only people who can stop a bully are:
those with higher and more powerful status ie. law enforcement, workplace regulatory authorities, wealthy and well connected people, including the target if they fall into this category.
a person they idealise and always want to please for their own status protection.
a group who sees through the bully (ie. the ungroomed/unrecruited bystanders) and have enough evidence to shut down their activity, damage their reputation, deprive them of professional opportunities, socially outcast them and hold them accountable by a separate authority.
The bully is no different to a narcissist. They feel entitled to being the authority and being respected as one, regardless of their qualifications, expertise or competences. From a bully’s perspective, they can believe they are protecting the weak and vulnerable - those they have chosen based on the capacity of that group to elevate the bully for protecting them. In a social group situation, the weak and vulnerable might not even be present. Yet, only those who share the same perspective as the bully can be viewed favourably by the bully and be conflated with loyalty to the bully.
The bully can be triggered into a dysregulated state in moments of distrust with the authority. Distrusting moments can include when the bully feels unclear about who the authority is, they feel superior to the existing authority or the authority departed from expected or predictable behaviour.
They feel triggered because the existing authority isn’t acting like their ideal authority, perceived as a betrayal of trust. Betrayal of trust means the bully, and by extension, the rest of the group are now unsafe. As a result, the bully enters a default ‘authority mode’ and they will quickly intervene to ‘save’ or rescue the group. Their need for immediate order for emotional safety initiates a cascade of disruption and chaos to drive the reassembly of the group into a new social order with them as the overseeing authority. That is, unless the existing authority can reign in the group and enforce prior group agreements and restore order.
At a primal level, we might be able to see the bully’s misattuned attempt to soothe their discomfort (conflated with being unsafe) by stepping into a familiar authoritarian parent mode to keep the family from falling apart and to ensure the group is a positive representation of their preferred self-image. Their dissociation from current reality into a past memory of bad times can activate a default, self-protective or survival state whereby they automatically act out their family drama in workplaces, social settings and friend groups.
The bystanders are also playing out their relationship with authority, to submit to the authority that is more likely to promote their survival and success. When primal survival mode kicks in, reasoning, morality and critical thinking go offline. The bystanders will perform freeze and fawn responses in front of others as these are the safest roles that are most likely to please the bully when they have engaged in their attack against the target. This is why when a bully humiliates their target, some bystanders remain quiet or try to smooth over the situation by appealing to the bully, stroking their ego or making light of the situation to de-escalate it. For the rest of the group who don’t stand up to the bully or go into freeze/fawn mode, it’s likely they don’t even register that anything problematic is occurring.
Everyone in this situation is re-enacting Karpman’s Drama Triangle through rescuing the Persecutor - the bully - to protect their own status with the bully. This description attempts to highlight that more of us are part of the problem than we can ascribe to the bully alone. Would you agree or disagree? Comment below!
Check out the conversation withon how we unwittingly can become a bully’s enabler.
Free subscribers can see a preview of this premium article. The final sections describe how to avoid becoming a bully’s enabler and what if you’re the bully. Upgrade now to access the full article.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Hacking Narcissism to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.