The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world

Bully by Nature

There seems to be a certain type of person inclined to bully-like behavior by nature.  Bully-like behavior is generally not revealed until the potential bully is under stress and his or her security is threatened in some way.  The workplace, like the schoolyard, can be conducive to such threatening situations.

What is the nature of a bully?  In my experience, the bully is a person who seems very comfortable with confrontation.  In the parlance of Fight or Flight, this type of person would be inclined to fight if they saw a way to victory.  And, remarkably, they are very adept at finding a path to victory, so they pursue it.  Win-win does not resonate with the bully. Often they cannot feel like they have won unless the other has definitively lost. A potential bully can actually be a very nice and generous person.  Generally, the bully behavior is not exhibited unless the person feels that his or her security or environment is threatened in some way.

Peter Savich, in his book Personality and the Brain, promotes an interesting idea of how the brain influences personality.  The left and right amygdala are our Fight and Flight processors, respectively. The bully, it would seem, has a dominant right amygdala.  Also, that drive to win belies a dominant left pre-frontal cortex (PFC).  For those familiar with the Enneagram, Savich relates these brain dominances to Type 8. The Enneagram is helpful for furthering our understanding of this type and how this type interacts with the other types.

So what would threaten the security of a person to the point it would trigger bully-like behavior?  In the workplace, it could be many things – a schedule slip in an important project, a restructuring of a team or group, or even a team member that has a new idea. Certainly, a new person introduced into the environment could trigger this reaction.  Generally, the potential bully would take some time to observe the new person and assess strengths and weaknesses.  If and when the bully behavior is triggered, the bully will exploit the weakness in an attempt to maintain control over the environment and secure his or her position.

Curiously, the bully-like behavior is so natural to this type of person, they are often unaware of their behavior and the effect it has on others. I find that it helps to remember that when a person exhibits this behavior, that he or she is simply reacting to a situation that is threatening them.


About the Author

A seasoned high tech leader with over 20 years of leadership and technology experience, Matt Schlegel provides consulting services in the areas of team leadership, product development, and manufacturing partnerships. Matt founded Enncorporation to deliver collaboration tools that help clients align teams around strategic initiatives and operate their businesses more effectively. After graduating from Harvey Mudd College with a degree in Engineering and UC San Diego with an MS in Electrical Engineering/Applied Physics, Matt was granted a Mombusho Scholarship to conduct research at the University of Tokyo. The following 3 years were spent living, studying and working in Japan. Leaving Japan, Matt returned to his native San Francisco Bay Area where he has spent nearly 20 years working in a number of engineering, management and consulting roles.
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