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Tame the Workplace Bully with Neuroscience

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30% of workers are bullied.

Research published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) shows that nearly a third of people have been bullied at work. With legal cases by employees on the increase, bullying has become a serious problem which organizations are keen to address.

I have sometimes been asked to ‘fix’ bullies and, as a coach, have taken the approach of enabling the bullies to fix themselves.

One thing I became aware of as I listened to these clients was that what they really wanted was to be liked and accepted. This is a universal place that everyone starts out from. The desire to be part of a tribe is in our genetic make-up, and protecting each other ensures the survival of the human race.

Nature vs nurture

Sometimes people get turned away from their natural pathway through life’s experiences. Take, for example, a child who grows up with parents or carers who are aggressive and even violent: that behaviour is likely to become the child’s blueprint for communication.

The lucky ones may meet role models outside of the home from whom they can absorb more empathetic skills, but others discover that replicating the intimidating environment of their own childhood provides the best defence against a world where they struggle to make friends - bullying provides protection from the confusion and misery engendered by their hostile behaviour, and so the problem spirals.

Research conducted by American neuroscientist James Fallon, detailed below, suggests that bullying is acquired rather than innate conduct, and the result of nurture rather than nature.

Neuroscience and bullying

Professor Fallon studied the brains of psychopaths and discovered that there are three key ingredients common to the psychopathic killer:

  1. Genetics: psychopaths carry one or more (there are ten) high-risk violence-related genes.

  2. Loss of brain function in the pre-frontal cortex. This is the circuit which controls ethics, morality, and impulse.

  3. A history of childhood abuse.

The psychopathic brain

Scans show that a normal brain is lit up with activity across most of its area, but when the brains of psychopaths have been scanned, the pre-frontal cortex is dark, showing no activity at all.

This could be taken to suggest that such killers are not responsible for their crimes or have no control over their actions, but Fallon does not subscribe to that view. Aware that a distant ancestor of his was Lizzie Borden, the legendary killer who ‘took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks’, he examined the brains of his current family members to see if any had inherited a ‘psychopathic pattern’.

He was shocked to find that the only such brain in the family was his own! Scans revealed an inactive orbital cortex, and Fallon went on to discover that he has all of the five major gene variants linked to aggression as well.

To his astonishment, some members of his immediate family confessed that they were not surprised to learn about his ‘psychopathic brain’. They had noticed what they described as a ‘standoffish part’ to him, and ‘hot-headed behaviour’. One even admitted to being ‘scared of him’ sometimes. On reflection, Fallon recognized that he did indeed have some unfeeling characteristics, and yet he also realized, with some surprise, that he found himself unable to care about it.

So why then, he asked himself, was he not a serial killer? He concluded that the third ingredient was lacking: his had been a peaceful, happy childhood and he had never been exposed to any kind of abuse. If nothing activates the trigger, then the person grows up to be a normal member of society – except that his or her behaviour may deviate in small ways from the norm, explaining the comments of Fallon’s own family.

The psychopathic CEO

Studies of CEOs have revealed that many of their brains exhibit psychopathic traits, but although psychopathic bosses may seem lethal, they do not kill people.

However, they sometimes take some hard business decisions, such as slashing jobs to increase profits, which many of us might struggle with.

Neuroscience and coaching

So even if the ‘nature’ argument is true, and a preponderance to certain behaviour is dictated by neural make-up and genes, we can see that ‘nurture’ makes all the difference.

Can we assume then that learned behaviour can be reversed? In my experience, this is possible and not always difficult. The bully must want to change, but I find that even a small exposure to coaching, particularly learning and practising the skills, is enough to create a desire to find out more about how to communicate in this way, simply because it feels better.

A coaching skills course might not reform a psychopath, but for the average bullying manager it can be the key to a whole new leadership style.