Bully in Sight

Bully in Sight – Tim Field

Asperger Management has looked closely at bullying or oppression in the workplace. The reason for this is its prevalence per se, and, in particular, the higher propensity of those with Asperger syndrome (AS) to be subjected to it.

There are lots of texts that give insight into why it occurs and what the end effects are. Very few, however, give concrete evidence and advice on how to cope with it. As a manager with AS I have been sceptical as to whether there is anyway you can effectively counter it, if someone in authority higher up is determined to undermine you.

Tim Field’s book Bully in Sight goes a long way to addressing this and is one of the best texts that I have read on the subject. It contains detail on many of the wider issues, (i.e. the causes of bullying what is constitutes etc), mentioned earlier. However, the commentary that follows focuses on a short part of the book: bullying in a work context and the methods for countering it.

I am going to relate this to my own experience. I have been subjected to victimisation on two occasions at work. In the first instance, I believe that I did nothing to instigate it initially; in the second, my actions contributed towards via my initial reaction towards the person involved. It was, however, the result of my intuition that was to follow – and which it certainly did throughout the company to a number of people.

I shall refer to the person in the first example as A and, in the second, to B.

According to Field, it is a heightened sense of insecurity that leads to inappropriate activation of the self protection mechanism that triggers the action of the bully. They not mean to do it or understand that they have.

This was what I believe occurred with person A. I believe insecurity was present in the wider sense and he [A], to use Field’s assertion, perceived a threat where none existed as a result of insecurity and fear of exposure to his position in general.

However, there had to be someone that this person projected his anxiety upon or, as a colleague was later to tell me: “if it is your fault, it can’t be his”. This was, as Field points out, a “defence” mechanism: the bully picks on another person and any faults and mistakes and magnifies them so as to portray them as the norm. The objective is to keep the spotlight on another person and not himself. By doing so he alleviates his own anxiety,

Strategies for dealing with perceived threats (which might be likened to avoidance behaviours) quickly become ingrained (reinforced) because of their effectiveness in reducing anxiety. However, the recipient, if they are an anxious person, tends to overreact which is what I did when I was first “attacked” by A. However, my AS meant that I too became anxious, and over-reacted by failing to retain composure. This sent the message that I was susceptible to attack an, therefore, vulnerable.

What I also did was “question” A’s ethics by attacking me the way he did. This induced the further reaction identified by Field of a person with a predominant bullying behaviour reacting instinctively to anxiety when feeling threatened.

The next effect identified by Field then cam into play: namely, that a person with a predominant behaviour style of the victim reacts to anxiety by instinctively feeling guilty – a level of guilt that is invariably too high. My AS pre-determined to a degree that I was to blame when, in effect, I wasn’t; or at lest, not initially!

The first phase 1 of bullying identified by Field (control and subjugation) came into play when I first encountered person B. He deliberately set out to subjugate everyone in general. I intuitively sensed this earlier than others and, because of the “fairness” inherent in my AS, reacted negatively to it.

This was what Field describes as, a compulsive reaction to reduce anxiety in the face of a perceived threat. When the victim shows signs of realising what is happening and begins to assert their right not to be bullied, the bully’s anxiety is transformed into fear and elimination (Phase 2) which becomes their instinctive response. In the case of B it was the innate need to control and bully.

The book then looks and how to challenge and combat workplace bullying. As Field ably describes, the key is to analyse the uniqueness of each situation which has a significant effect and how to cope with it going forward.

The first option is to unmask the bully. Bullies are often in positions of leadership which makes it hard to counter from a subordinate position. According to Field insecurity is the root issue and the bully fears someone will see through their façade and find out what they are really about.

In the case of A in my situation, I sensed a degree of insincerity on behalf of the person involved because of my [AS] heightened sense of right and wrong. This I believe antagonised him. With B, I also sensed what he was about personally and professionally (setting people up to dismiss them) which meant, combined with his bullying need to dominate, that I had to be put down – and removed!

To counter bullying from above requires recognising that knowledge is power; awareness is empowerment. If people can unite a bully can be exposed.

However, as Field asserts challenging a bully requires inter-personal skills, behavioural maturity, confidence and assertiveness beyond the average. Within the workplace this is only possible if an anti-bullying policy is in place and endorsed from the top; otherwise the bully can turn his attentions elsewhere and deploy less visible tactics, i.e. advising on the surplus nature of certain employees when there is a restructure.

In the case of A, anti-bullying policies may have been in place but utilising them would, I believe, been futile because A would have then used the less visible tactics – which he did anyway. In the case of B, I was working in a small company and no formal protection was available.

Challenging a bully therefore, means that the pros and cons of each situation need to be carefully weighed up: put up with the abuse (with consequences for job, health etc) or confront the bully? In some cases the bully may back off – which I believe A may have done in my instance. The alternative is to leave which, with B, was the only realistic option

Either way you need to be firm, resolute and assertive which, as someone with AS, I have always found hard to do. To improve your chances of success, Field states that you need to decide exactly what it is you want to achieve at the outset. Then be assertive and stick to your guns by employing entrenchment (you won’t be moved) techniques, use repetition, ignore provocation taunts, threats – see this as sign you are getting somewhere.

According to the author an unwillingness to respond to provocation will annoy the bully and encourage him to exhibit further bullying behaviour meaning he convicts himself.

In the case of A, I feel I may have been able to implement the suggested approach. With B it would have been simply impossible because of his total unwillingness to listen or compromise. I also had no power to respond.

Field’s next point is, I believe, very valid and relates to the subject of empathy that I have explored extensively: “try to see the intent behind the content”.

In the case of A it was the “projection” Field refers to: he [A] needed to project his own insecurity onto someone else. This is precisely what happened to me. However, my sense of being “different” meant I felt responsible, in part, for the situation when, as previously mentioned, I did nothing initially to provoke it; I was simply, unfortunately because of my lower position, the “target”.

The mistake I did make was to react and allow myself to be provoked. According to Field this is an invitation to act emotionally, irrationally, irresponsibly; by provoking you the bully is gaining the ammunition to be used against you later. It enables him to then portray you as untrustworthy, unreliable etc precisely the characteristics displayed by the bully themselves.

In the case of both A and B, I reacted and allowed myself to be provoked. As I mention in my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome, and as other commentators on bullying such as Nick Dubin strongly assert, this is what you must, above all else, hard as though it is for someone with AS, not to do.

The next point aligns with my experience very closely and can be very provocative and agitating for someone with AS. The bully will try to align themselves with high moral standards and the objectives of the employer. This has a strong isolating effect on the individual being targeted.

In the case of A, he would state categorically that it was not personal, only that “he couldn’t stand the company being put in bad light”. That was not the case at all of course, but I shouldn’t have questioned that as it had the propensity to antagonise further – even though my AS stated that I was entitled to do so given that it was fact. With B, he would accuse other people of slacking and not do things – and then do precisely the same things himself”.

How are issues like this countered and how does one effectively stand up to them?

Field’s first suggestion resonates strongly with the AS personality profile. Remember: no-one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Now, I try to not initially think that I am inferior because of my AS, or that I am automatically, in part, to blame.

It is also important to remember that it is exceedingly difficult and usually impossible to handle a bully by yourself. This point is, I believe, critical for someone with AS seeking to counter victimisation.

Going alone according to Field, requires a high degree of inter-personal skills, unshakable self-confidence, advanced assertiveness, very mature behaviour skills, plus the financial independence to put your career on the line through the risk of being fired, “selected for redundancy” or ousted from your job. Few people have all these skills meaning that this approach can be deemed to be a non-starter; it almost inevitably applies to someone with AS.

Building a support network is essential. This takes time however, and means that practical steps should be taken to protect yourself whilst it is being established.

As Field quite rightly says, we are conditioned to believe that asking for help equates to defeat. I believe this was my mindset in the case of person A. Looking back, there were people I could have carefully brought into the equation who could have – albeit indirectly – supported and subtly reduced A’s ability to attack me.

The text then looks at some of the options available when considering any bullying situation one finds oneself’ in. These depend, as mentioned, on the type of situation.

i) Stay where you are and do nothing: most people do this but it rarely works. They hope things will improve, but invariably they don’t. People who are bullied tend to be forgiving, a quality that the bully lacks and this tends to provoke further bullying.

I personally believe that this almost inevitably applies in all cases; it certainly did in my case with both A and B.

ii) Stay where you are and put up with it. The result is usually the same. I personally don’t think that this is an option for someone with AS: the psychological effect is too wearing and will do unacceptable damage over time, making it not worthwhile.

iii) Stay where you are and be rational with the bully: this may work in the short-term, but after a while the bullying will usually start again. This approach is a form of appeasement which is the green light for the bully to continue as they see it as sign of weakness.

In the case of A, I “may” have been able to reason with him. With B there was no chance of this happening.

v) Stay where you are and take action to improve your position: your circumstances may improve, but you are taking a risk. If you have been psychologically battered for a while, it becomes hard to stand up for your self. Even if you are successful, the bully will change strategy and employ more subtle tactics. In the absence of a company anti-bullying policy you are likely to be ostracised.

I have to say that, from my experience, this is the likely outcome. From the perspective of having AS, this is not something that I would endure.

vi) Take shelter behind a kindly individual and let them take the brunt.

What this is saying for me is: find a mentor. This is something that I always try to do. Finding such a person is far from easy but, as a person with AS, doing so means I have a confidant who I can relieve my mental anxiety with, and who can also advise and guide me at a time when my capacity to think straight is less than effective.

vii) Take the bully on: very risky. Requires enormous courage, character maturity and, preferably, financial independence. The bully increases the pressure: the psychological battle goes up. Your honesty is undermined.

My AS means that this is a strategy that I would very rarely be comfortable in activating for the reasons outlined beforehand.

ix) Put in a formal complaint: this has the potential to risk everything – your job, career, friends. If management backs the bully – which was the case with A in my instance – you lose. If I do feel it necessary to leave however, I always state the reasons very clearly on my exit form.

x) Leave: this is not a failure, but a valid choice. It is recognition of an unacceptable situation which is not of your choice, of your making and over which you have no control. The pressure is lifted, but your self-confidence and esteem are damaged. You may also not have understood why you were being bullied.

Ultimately, certainly with B, probably with A, this would have been the better option for me, though with the latter it was not something I ever wanted to do.

xi) Wait to be fired: in many bullying cases dismissal is an inevitable conclusion and then take legal action.

This is not an option I would ever recommend as the sense of injustice within a person with AS is likely to remain and be a source of ongoing mental anguish.

Which of the above options you choose depends on your personal circumstances, feelings, confidence and quality of support available to you; your long term plans, employer and staff policies and personal objectives. From this an action plan then needs to be developed.

According to Field, personal assertiveness is a key requirement. However, learning assertiveness is a life skill that can take years to acquire and practice. It will though augment self-esteem, confidence and self-worth as you learn to play the game to interacting with other people.

Being assertive with a bully takes a “lot” of practice, so it may not bring immediate results. It will though stop the rot and stabilize your self confidence and break the hold that the bully has over you. Once empowered, you can begin to make positive, informed choices again.

This is invaluable advice. I believe that it is essential for anyone, certainly for someone with AS, not to allow being bullied to become the norm and entrenched. If it starts, address it immediately.

According to the author, learning to behave assertively does not change ones personality. The advantages are that you stand up for your rights whilst giving the bully nothing to hold onto or criticise. Initially you may feel nervous – especially so if you are hyper-sensitive – which a person with AS, of course, is likely.

Assertiveness means you can claim your rights without hurting other people’s feelings or trampling on their rights; you will have stood up for yourself in a way the bully will find hard to criticise. From my [AS] perspective this is essential. With person A my inherent sense of fairness questioned his ethical stance – this antagonized him and caused me damage going forward.

As Field also quite rightly says, it is important not to reveal too much about yourself to the bully – you have the right not to reveal more than you want: it could be used against you. This was certainly the case with A with me. I always force myself now not to be too – AS – trusting of other people and divulge as little as possible about myself.

In addition, it is unwise and unsafe to build a relationship with the bully, as your faith and trust may be seriously misplaced. Promises such as “things will be different from here on in” may be short lived. The bully’s selective memory will be short lived. If it were possible to trust the bully he wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

Field’s next point relates strongly to AS also: “your instinct may be to justify, explain, elaborate – possibly apologize”. The person may have a sense of justice, a feeling of openness which manifests itself via a yearning to share, usually through verbal exposition. These impulses are the spur for an assumption of guilt which can only be assuaged by lengthy explanation followed by an “appropriate” apology for “your share of the blame”.

This relates, I believe, closely to the sense of “differentness” in AS. However, as Field says, it is important not to go down this path as it is implicitly accepting blame and, therefore, responsibility. This absolves the bully to a degree of his. For the person being bullied it is of the upmost importance to secure support immediately. This prevents confidence and self-worth falling further. In my case with A, I believe I should have insisted upon this from my boss who could have exerted some influence on him.

So assertiveness is the key. One definition of assertiveness is being able to stand up for your rights, but without violating anyone else’s or: understanding the difference between “I” and “others” and, therefore the “rights” or “needs” of “I” and “Others”. It means knowing where to draw the line – is a request reasonable before accepting for example without feeling guilty.

This is important. When I deem myself to be “unfairly” challenged – as the inherent sense of fairness and literal interpretation of events and people as dictated by my AS – means I sometimes am, I can question the ethics and “righteousness” of others. In the case of both A and B this was justified – but also counterproductive and damaging to me.

Now when I am challenged, I try hard to respond objectively and not refer or highlight the immorality or unethicity of the other person. These facets cannot be automatically applied in a corporate context.

According to Field, many children are taught to think of others, but not how to value themselves. The desire to say no, combined with the inability to articulate the word, breeds resentment, meaning they become increasingly embittered. This can lead to inappropriate displays of emotion, followed by guilt. Sometimes the pressure builds to such a peak that a person “flips” and becomes aggressive regardless of the consequences of their actions – queue Asperger syndrome!

The key according to the author is to respond assertively – not emotionally – to avoid feeling any guilt. If guilt is felt, resist the urge to make long detailed excuses or try to justify your actions. If you cannot decline completely, use the deferred approach: “I’m sorry but I cannot help you at the moment, but I will look into it and come back”.

You also need to learn how to use tact and discretion. In the early days if you are unsure, it is best to give people the benefit of the doubt. Personally, I think that this is a sound approach in general. It would certainly have been applicable in the case of my dealings with A and, possibly, with B.

The next point could be written with Asperger in mind. When being assertive, it is also important not to use self-deprecating language as it suggests you feel inferior in some way and it also has the propensity to provide a hook for the bully. Avoid apologies unless genuinely necessary; if you have to, move on and don’t look back again on it later. In other words, don’t hold grudges and let things fester.

Instead, state your beliefs openly, honestly and without prejudice. Do not allow your beliefs to be disregarded or belittled. Importantly, give the bully nothing to latch on to, no points to be picked up on, or judgmental remarks with which to beat you. “It is your right not to have your rights violated”.

Avoid the temptation to criticize the other party as it negates the assertive and leaves you open to attack. If you are provoked into saying something inappropriate and are consequently threatened, make it clear, in writing if necessary, you were provoked – this identifies the “cause” of the provocation and turns attention back onto the bully, necessitating he has to justify his behavior.

As Field rightly points out, criticism is endemic in an adversarial [corporate] society and behavioral maturity involves eliminating it from your own vocabulary. Express any difference of opinion or hold a different view, but don’t criticize. If you are criticized, respond calmly and assertively.

Replace words like “unjust” and “unfair” – words that perhaps would have immediately come to mind for me as someone with AS – with alternatives like “unacceptable”. It is harder to argue with assertiveness, as opposed to, defensiveness or an aggressive stance.

When you are able to stand up to criticism – especially unwarranted and unjustified criticism – you can move on to the next stage: “in choosing to behave like this, what is the [bullying] person revealing about themselves”: what are their thoughts, feelings, attitudes and beliefs?

With A and B in my examples, A was attempting to project his insecurity onto other others, i.e. me. Countering this involves using assertive defence by refusing to take these failings on board and reflecting them back onto the other person by askinf them to justify their comments or actions.

Assertive defence techniques require practice. They involve the temptation or urge to hit back, which is what a bully wants. Resist it at all cost. By pausing you are asserting your right not to be psychologically violated. With practice you will be able to see intent more clearly as your response becomes quickly instinctive. You will learn to decode the bullies words and behavior to perceive how they feel about themselves and so react more appropriately. This information will help contest any subsequent grievance.

Bullies are unable to accept comments which trespass on their insecurity. If you encroach upon this you are likely you are to threaten and reveal it. Be specific and stay specific on objective points. If the bully refuses to discuss, let nothing divert your attention and insist that they do.

It is also important to understand the role of the HR Dept. Most employees believe this exists to protect them, but often it is to implement the policies and procedures of employers – or protect the employer’s position. I can resonate with this. I never believe that I can rely on the HR function; it is an informal support network only that can provide this assistance.

Finally, with B, I found myself dealing with a bully who was prepared and likely to become nasty. When faced with this unpleasantness, Field advocates the following response: “thank you for sharing you views with me” as this labels the opinions expressed as belonging to the other person.

Whilst assertiveness alone may not solve a bullying situation, you will be able to defend yourself against regular attack and come away each time with your dignity intact and self respect. For someone with AS this is, perhaps, the most important thing of all!

A really good book. For those approaching the subject of bullying in general it is worth an entire read. Foe people like me looking for effective responses, it is essential reading.

Bully in Sight by Tim Field
ISBN: 0952912104
Publisher: Success Unlimited

Managing with Asperger Syndrome