Stand Up Against Bullying: A blog to help stop workplace bullying
Workplace Bullying

The Unconscious Reactions to Being a Vulnerable Worker

a person is standing in front of a group of people
Originally published May 3, 2017; Edited and Republished July 13, 2021

Being a target of workplace bullying is devastating especially to one’s professional life. In the beginning, a target just wonders what is going on and often seeks a rational explanation for the way they are being treated. They might even ask for advice and suggestions from their co-workers. The target’s professional behavior basically stays the same.

However, over time, the vulnerable worker’s performance at work may change as a direct result of the continued attacks on their professional conduct. This often happens unconsciously but also as a means of self-preservation as the bullying intensifies.

It is a natural reaction for vulnerable workers to begin to internalize what is happening to them and to start to feel that their work is inferior. They begin to question their work and professionalism based on the propaganda and lies that the bully is perpetrating. Vulnerable workers question their ability to do their job and become hypersensitive about the quality of their work. The accusations that are being made often become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the target as they overcompensate to prove what the bully says is wrong.

For example, Patricia is a nurse at the local hospital and had an exemplary record including written comments about the quality of her paperwork. A few months ago, Patricia started to get bullied by her supervisor. Her bully made complaints and accusations about Patricia’s paperwork. These criticisms included Patricia’s inability to get her paperwork done in a timely fashion and her paperwork contained inaccurate assessments. Overtime, Patricia lost confidence in her ability to do her paperwork. To improve her paperwork and combat the bullying, Patricia started to write longer and more thorough reports including more details in her assessments. She started to proofread her paperwork two and three times to ensure that she was not doing the things her bullying was accusing her of. These modifications in her behavior impacted her ability to get her work done in a timely fashion. Patricia started taking more time to get her paperwork done because she was concerned about the quality of it based on the bully’s comments. Her attempts to resist the bullying became a self-fulfilling prophecy for her. Her bully made accusations that her paperwork was not done in a timely fashion and in the end, her paperwork was not done in a timely fashion.

Targets should do everything they can to make sure they are not internalizing the messages told by the bully. The best strategy for targets is to maintain a high quality of professionalism and work. In a workplace bullying environment, this is much more difficult to do than it seems. However, it is vital that vulnerable workers need to understand that they are being bullied for no reason and the accusations against them have no merit. And remember, that the workplace bully is the one who is the problem and so, instead of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, targets need to continue to be the quality worker they have always been.

Call to Action:
This week, continue to do your best at work. If you know someone is being bullied, show your support by complimenting them on their work.