Who Is the Bully?
by Marinah Valenzuela Farrell

[Editor's note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today Issue 81, Spring 2007.]

This is the second of four articles on bullying, a problem that has been identified within the profession of midwifery, as well as in many other areas. The next issue will address the bully's target and effects of PTSD.

Why do bullies do what they do? Bullying is about inadequacies. A bully is generally a person who:

  • Has never learned to accept responsibility for his or her behavior.
  • Avoids and denies responsibility for the consequences of that behavior (abdication and denial are hallmarks in bullying) through denial, blaming others and feigning victimhood.
  • Is unable and unwilling to recognize the effect and harm the behavior has on others.
  • Is unable and unwilling to conceptualize a better way to behave.

Other traits in bullies include low self-confidence and self-esteem, resentment, bitterness, hatred and anger, with wide-ranging prejudices (www.bullying.org). As well, they can be driven by jealousy and envy. Bullies often can't stand the thought of rejection and as such are motivated to bully as a way to prevent a situation where they may be rejected. Diminished responsibility is a sign that an individual needs counseling or professional help. Bullies select their targets because they represent things that the bully will never be—good at their jobs, popular, mature and committed to fulfilling adult tasks with a sense of integrity.

Bullies adopt a "childish response of avoidance" according to Tim Field, a noted expert in the field of bullying in the UK. In much of my research on bullying, I have found that various individuals link bullies with sociopathic disorders. However, Dr. Gary Namie, a social psychologist and co-founder with his wife Ruth Namie of The Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute (WBTI), disagrees. In his article "Workplace Bullying: Escalated Incivility," Namie writes: "The characteristic common to all bullies is that they are controlling competitors who exploit their cooperative targets."

Essentially, the traits that make up a bully incorporate not only the bully's individual personality traits, but the opportunities within the profession(s) where the bully operates.

In a personal interview (09/26/06) Dr. Namie told me, "Bullies can be incredibly cruel, brutal people, but they [usually] aren't sociopaths or psychopaths because if they were, they wouldn't be able to show up for the normal 9–5 routine. Bullies don't care about making a difference and sometimes they just aren't even into the profession anymore. Twenty to thirty years out and they can't even tell you anymore why they got into it. Their day is filled with interpersonal destruction of others so if you come along wide-eyed and want to make a positive difference, they will just be licking their chops. What we find is that these bullies get rid of the best people. I do not say they are psychopaths; we [at the WBTI] like to use the word ‘Machiavellian.’ This makes it normal. They want to get ahead and get the credit and it is acceptable to be Machiavellian.

"These bullies can be good women who have gone bad. Not bad in their life role but in their work role, when they slide into what they need to be or if they never saw that role modeled correctly. And those who question the bully and say ‘this doesn't work’ are going to have a tough time."

One thing that Dr. Namie made me realize about homebirth midwives is that our workplace is in other women's homes. That, then, would be the playing field for bullies–a sad and startling thought.

We also spoke about the issue of mentors in the form of preceptors and students (including nurses and head nurses in institutions) caught in a bullying cycle. I noted that clearly some, if not a high number of, preceptors who were bullied will in turn bully their students or become midwives who bully other midwives. His response to me was: "Well, that is about paying your dues and is crazy. It has to be an accepted part of the profession to be continuing. You have an unstated rage. It mirrors the cycle of violence in domestic violence, where the abused become the abusers and there is a transgenerational transmission of violence.

"Preceptors who feel they need to hoard their information do so because they don't have a mastery of enough of it, because if they did they would give it away and delight in proving their mastery and in sharing that mastery with others. But that is not how [bullies] are made. They are made to hoard and steal credit and not to self-disclose but [to discover] others' personal secrets so that they can find the buttons to push. They may know it isn't good for their profession, but they have never known it any other way, so they are going to defend it until their death….

"[Midwifery issues] can be intellectualized into a conflict and spoken out and resolved. But instead [the issues] are pushed down to a criminal level of the brain with repressed thoughts and out comes this rage that looks totally disconnected from anything. Where in the world did that come from? If it is that inexplicable, that should be like a neon arrowhead that says [these people are] raging because of anger and they don't even know why they are angry. And, yes, it is a conflict. For most bullies it is conflict but it can't be described as conflict because it is not intellectual, it is psychological assault and very personal. It is going after another human being and trying to tear their flesh apart. As opposed to, ‘Well, we disagree but let's have coffee anyway and let's talk about things we have agreement on.’

"Bullies don't think that way. It is all about control and being subservient. And when you are asking about a preceptor who wants to crush a newbie, it is all about subservience. ‘You do it my way, and only my way.’ And see how that fits bullying? We discovered that with nurse preceptors. Very blatant—they eat their young. They eat their own. Some would rather let a patient bleed to death than help a youngster (new nurse) because they want them to look bad in the eyes of those in charge.

"It is very popular for people to say ‘Oh, we need to feel sorry for them [the bully] because they are so insecure.’ Well, you would never know it to look at their veins bulging and their fists about to explode as they are ready to rage. Underneath it all there is some sense of a lack of deservedness. Just from an esteem level, most of this type of behavior is a lashing out to compensate."

Many organizations and experts have classified bullies into certain types to make identification easier. The book The Bully at Work summarizes identification into two simple traits:

  • Deliberate actions to humiliate, intimidate, undermine or destroy the target (person being bullied), or
  • The withholding of resources (time, information, supplies, support, goals) necessary for the target to succeed.

Categories used by the Drs. Namie are:

The Constant Critic. This is the person who is negative, a nitpicker, a whiner and a complainer. She finds fault, lies and masks personal insecurity with public bravado. She destroys confidence, encourages self-doubt and is loved by management for her ability to "get those people to produce."

Two Headed Snake. She has a passive-aggressive, indirect, dishonest style of dealing with people and issues—Jekyll and Hyde. She pretends to be nice while sabotaging you. Friendliness serves only to decrease resistance to giving information she can use against you later. A smile hides naked aggression. She assassinates reputations with higher-ups and plays favorites.

Gatekeeper. This is the most transparent of the controllers. She needs to establish herself as "one up" on you, to order you around or to control your circumstances. To her, control of all resources (time, supplies, praise, approval, money, staffing, help) is the most important aspect of work. You must solicit her approval.

Screaming Mimi. This is the stereotypical bully who controls through fear and intimidation. She is emotionally out of control and impulsive. She presents a threat of physical violence. She wants to instill a sense of dread and is overbearing, self-centered and insensitive to the needs of others. She is very worried about being detected as imposter; bombast masks incompetence.

The action of bullying (as opposed to classifying the bully's traits) also has been classified into various types and can include: Organizational Bullying; Pressure Bullying; Corporate Bullying; Client Bullying; Serial Bullying; Secondary, Pair, or Gang Bullying; Cyber Bullying and so on.

Top tactics adopted by all bullies as reported by the WBTI from a 2003 survey of 1,000 respondents (percentages indicate the type of bullying used, as perceived by the targeted individual):

  • falsely accused someone of errors not actually made (71%)
  • stared, glared, was nonverbally intimidating and was clearly showing hostility (68%)
  • discounted the person's thoughts or feelings ("oh, that's silly") in meetings (64%)
  • used the silent treatment to ice out and separate from others (64%)
  • exhibited presumably uncontrollable mood swings in front of the group (61%)
  • made up own rules on the fly that even she did not follow (61%)
  • disregarded satisfactory or exemplary quality of completed work despite evidence (58%)
  • harshly and constantly criticized, having a different "standard" for the target (57%)
  • started, or failed to stop, destructive rumors or gossip about the person (56%)
  • encouraged people to turn against the person being tormented (55%)
  • singled out and isolated one person from co-workers, either socially or physically (54%)
  • yelled, screamed, threw tantrums in front of others to humiliate a person (53%)

Many organizations glorify these tactics as tough management or leadership skills, which creates a misconception that bullies are really assertive and focused managers. However, bullies are not able to distinguish between assertiveness and aggression. The difference, according to www.bullyonline.org/workbully/myths.htm is that "assertiveness, when backed by integrity, recognizes and respects peoples' boundaries and values, any request is polite and unconditional and there are no negative consequences if the person being asked says no. Bullies, who have no integrity, are aggressive, demanding, and regularly violate others' boundaries; aggression does not respect peoples' rights and requests come with a negative consequence if the course of action demanded by the bully is declined."

I asked Dr. Namie for his thoughts on this: "Now a bully would look at me and say you are just making excuses. I am not mean, I'm just better and you have no right to criticize me. That is all a mask. It is all bravado. It is the Wizard of Oz cover story with the big ball, [machine] and smoke and then the dog Toto pulls the curtain and it is that little guy working the levers. That is the true person there. Now you aren't ever going to see that person if they are very skilled or of a certain age. They are never going to reveal that to anybody. There is a rage and they are displacing the rage over political positions, historical precedent and fear. They are demanding that their veteran status be acknowledged and they want what all bullies want; they want control and to find the reason for this need of control one needs to be darn near Freudian…."

Another misconception is that the targets or victims of bullying contribute to the behavior. We know this from the frequently blaming of women who have been raped and are told that they "asked for it," or abused women who are given the message that they somehow deserved it for not leaving. It is crucial to our understanding of who a bully is that in fact the victim clearly does not "ask for" this to happen to her.

According to www.bullyonline.org/workbully/myths.htm, bullies join the ranks of other abusive individuals who seem to be "possessed of an army of supporters, apologists, appeasers, acolytes, protectors and deniers, and appreciate all forms of support [that] mitigate their crime." I asked Dr. Namie to explain why individuals would look the other way, say nothing and do nothing to stop the behavior of a bully towards a target, even when their profession, their professional organization or an individual is being harmed.

Dr. Namie: "The only people who are not opposed to bullying are bullies or their allies. Their allies prop them up by rationalizing it or with that sense of resignation, saying ‘What do you do? That is just how some people are.’ Those people are getting something out of it [out of not addressing the bullying behavior] and have gotten something out of it before. They think if they hang in there long enough and pay their dues they will get to this other end of the curve—the other end of the cycle where they get to hurt other people. Some believe the misery will only end when they get to inflict it later on down the road. That is how you get the cycle of violence; it is its own reward. The sadistic ones can actually come to enjoy it. To everyone else it is just self-protection. ‘I understand but I'm not going to give up my position. I have it lucky here and I need to preserve myself.’

"We say, ‘Well, she should have known better. She was weak. She is vulnerable, this and that.’ We do it all the time. We have soured the experience for so many people that they just leave the profession. Nurses leave because they can't see a way out. The institution doesn't want to say, ‘Look, here is a core group of a half dozen nurses or midwives with 20–30 years of experience that absolutely run a sorority. They crush anyone new. They shame and belittle and are hyper-aggressive and the profession never mounts an offensive and says to them, "You are responsible for driving many people away. You are a danger to the profession."’

"As outsiders to bullying we are as guilty as all of society that chose to look the other way at domestic violence [referring specifically to years past when it was not acknowledged or addressed]. Now we are a torturing nation and we have Abu Ghraib. ‘Oh, it was just a few bad scenes. They were just following orders or a rule book.’ No one wants to admit it; they'd rather say it is just a few individuals. We focus on individuals and we never see the invisible factors that contribute to the push and pull of our addictions."

Marinah Valenzuela Farrell, LM, CPM, is a midwife with Sage Midwifery in Phoenix, Arizona.


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