“Michael, my psychologist told me that my boss is a narcissist!”

The above words were said to me by an employee making bullying claims against their manager. At the time, this raised concerns. I had spent some time getting to know both employer and employee in my support role. I hadn’t seen any evidence that might suggest narcissism. The manager hadn’t done everything perfectly, neither had the employee, but there was nothing to support a claim the manager was a narcissistic.

Added to this was that the psychologist had only completed one initial appointment with the employee and had never met the manager. The psychologist was not in a position to make an assessment about the manager.

When it comes to bullying, I find many of us want to use a label. However, using a label, when it comes to dealing with bullying isn’t useful.

Why? Because it doesn’t help us find a solution to the problem.

Why do we use labels?

Evil. Crazy. Insane. Power-hungry. Narcissist. Lunatic. Control freak. Psychopath. Devil. Demon.

These are examples of different labels a target might use when talking about a workplace bully.

Labeling of others for bullying behaviours can be an important part of survival and recovery. People who have been targeted by bullying can feel acute shame. Shame for being targeted. Shame for being unable to stop it. Perceptions of a bullied target by others can be infectious, spreading from the bully to a target’s co-workers.

Therefore, a target will use the labels to discredit the bully in an effort to dilute the perceptions of other workers and the prevent the loss of social connection in the workplace. It comes from a place of if I discredit my attacker, then I am alright. It is an attempt to repair damage to the targets identity.

Why aren’t the labels useful to resolving the problem?

Labels can be useful for professionals, like psychologists, with the skills and qualifications to treat clinical narcissism or psychopathy. However, for the most of us in workplaces, they don’t help us resolve the problem.

If we take one label, bullying, I have witnessed it having a range of impacts. Commonly, it has involved retreat, denial and defensiveness. I have experienced organisations retreat into lock-down and combative mode after one employee has accused another of being a bully in fear the claimant is ready to take them to court or make a Workcover claim.

At the same time, the person labelled a bully also becomes defensive, feeling the urge to attack to keep themselves safe. Everything spirals downward and effective solutions take a back seat to defense.

The label to behaviour focus

In achieving effective solutions, we need to focus our, and our employees, approaches, from the label to the perceived problematic behaviour.

For example, I worked with an employee in my support capacity who was being targeted in their workplace. The specific behaviours were that:

  • The employees supervisor would greet all other employees except him;
  • The employees supervisor would identify mistakes made by the employee, email the whole team that an error had been made, but never name him in the email, nor address it directly with the employee.

With these specific behaviours identified, we were able to, with the employer, implement and monitor specific strategies to achieve a resolution.

If you get stuck on a label, you won’t find the solution you need to address your problem.

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