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Anna’s First Turning Point
Utterly Alone
(BBSG Chapter One)

The Ring of Fire

Anna was on the wrong end of an ugly Bully grilling—and not for the first time. As with the others before, Wayne did not plan it, but it started out small and he quickly lit his words into a firestorm. Wayne surprised Anna from behind when she was staring intently down at her work papers, proofing them to beat an approaching deadline. She did not turn around. Her cubical was one of a pair of quads, roughly in the middle of a large office, with a dozen other employees working that day. Wayne wasn’t yelling, but talking just loud enough for everyone to hear every tense word. He came out of nowhere and attacked Anna for issues she had nothing to do with. He seemed to be making up things as he went along. He breathed heavily down on her and stared at her with malicious intent.

“Your work is unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable.” Wayne hissed bending forward at the waist. Anna remained seated, already stressed and getting more so. “Where did you go to high school?” he asked.

It seemed a rhetorical question to a woman who graduated at the top of her class in a two-year college program at the top of her class. It was the purist of insults, having no facts or reasoning. Anna didn’t move, certainly not to look up at him towering behind her. She pretended to continue proofing her papers, even making a few corrective marks. “Well, it’s time you went back,” he said. “Forget it. They can’t make you any smarter than you’re not.”

He turned halfway around without going anywhere. He’d challenged her intelligence, a hot-button issue for her, recalling childhood. She didn’t engage him, but felt the same tortured, victimized emotions that she remembered from her days contending with her abusive father. Notions of “justice” and “injustice” were prompted by each repetition of challenge. Like a stalker, Wayne just hung there, waiting for a reaction. He said nothing more, but he wouldn’t leave.

 

This particular chastisement was unprofessional, even abusive. As Wayne continued to stand behind her, blocking her exit, Anna felt trapped in her tiny workspace; a prisoner in a cell. “Escape” was another word suddenly important to her. A deathly pall had fallen over the entire office. Her cubicle had become her solitary confinement. And for what? Her job performance had long been documented as excellent in all areas. She felt ashamed and isolated. Was Wayne signaling that he intended to fire her? How would she meet her bills? She had two kids to consider. A sickening feeling came up in her gut.

Wayne just stood there, twisting her insides into knots. He was not touching her, but he was close enough, and it felt creepy. Anna could only make out what was within three feet of space around her and her Bully. For that time, her entire universe was that small. It was getting hotter than Hades in the tight little “Ring of Fire” that he had created for her. It was seemingly the most intensely negative interpersonal experiences she would ever have, and he possessed all the power. He was the boss, and seemed to have the authority to behave however he pleased, and he was using his position of power to unfairly criticize her work, her integrity, and her character.

As is common with a lot of bullying cases, Wayne didn’t give Anna the courtesy of telling her what her error might have been, so there was nothing she could say or do in defense. She said nothing, keeping her back to him in uncharacteristic submission.

A minute before this occurred, she was going about her work productively, but now the action was moving very quickly without anyone moving at all. She knew from past incidents that if she happened to make a defense, he would twist and turn whatever she said against her. She wasn’t going to repeat that mistake again..

Outside the walls of her cubicle, no one could see any of it, but their imaginations filled the gap. It could only be bad. Wayne’s message to Anna and all of those in earshot was, “This fool’s had it.” She was officially ostracized, someone to avoid for the sake of office politics or suffer the consequences. She’d been successfully isolated from her coworkers, tied up inside a very tight girdle, ringed in heat, and devoid of air. The temperature just kept building.

For months, behind Anna’s back Wayne had insinuated negatives about her to other employees—comments that were degrading, and dehumanizing. To her face, he’d put her “one-down” every chance he got. Her emotional responses were many but it was her profound sense of constant vulnerability that was paramount. He’d questioned her competency to be in the workforce at all..

When Wayne isolated Anna from her peers, he essentially threatened to evict her from their archetypical “village,” raising the specter of her and her kids starving to death in the forest outside its gates. She seemed to be facing her own mortality. She could report and claim whatever she pleased, but she knew that no one would believe her. Not even her co-employees watching these incidents unfold could comprehend what they were hearing or seeing. They were blanked faced, stunned. It was just too much. It was no wonder she was confused, and fearful.

For most Targets like Anna, it’s to be expected that their escape from their Bully will come only by leaving their jobs one way or another. That’s the bad news..
Here’s the good news: that Ring of Fire of Wayne’s was artificially generated and largely illusory. It may have been of the Bully’s design, but was sustainable only by Anna’s reasonable, but false, sense of smallness. If Anna was going to find relief from her Bully, it would not be found inside of the little Ring of Fire in which he had once again trapped her and where he was the biggest thing going.

Relief, if it were found, would be discovered as she grew politically beyond the Ring’s tight confines. She’d gather information and people around herself. She would become politically too large to ever fit back inside that small Ring again. Through strategic thinking leading to action, she could become a moving party, “working” her new and larger world. It will have become a world at least partly of her own making.

The workplace is an intensely political place. There exists a common illusion that good, hard, and productive labor will protect a good employee from all the nonsense that others, such as Bullies, may bring into it. It doesn’t. It can help, it can even hurt, but there’s no substitute for playing it smart. Workplace politics are not optional, but playing them well is. Employees can’t change Bullies’ minds or who they are as people, but they can change themselves from Target and victim into Warrior by growing beyond them. Sometimes in crisis, “wisdom comes suddenly.”

If Targets have good enough reason to stay at their job, at least for the time being, then they need to defend their right to be there. Most days, we are accustomed to exercising our rights such as speech and love, as if they were unchallengeable entitlements, but that’s illusionary. Having rights and defending them—or at least being prepared to defend them—are inseparable. Rights are not only birthed from the crucible of conflict, that’s also how they’re protected. To sleep undisturbed in bed at night is certainly their right, but it’s also subject to intrusion by criminals and noisy neighbors. It’s a right defended by walls, doors and locks. It’s a right protected by mutually convenient social customs and laws backed up by guys and gals wearing blue and carrying guns. If a cat wails into the night, eventually we’ll do something. They’re not free and not to be taken for granted. Rights are edgy and that makes workplace politics edgy as well.

 

With Anna’s current poverty of information and contacts, she could probably only see Wayne on the hateful, not altogether real, interpersonal level that he presented himself on. There was nothing personal between them. Work was supposed to be business. Clearly, the Bully had no interest in becoming Anna’s friend. He sought her conquest—which is a different thing altogether. What was real was political conflict.

Bullies seek to control other people for reasons that are entirely theirs, and exploit their management given authority to do so. But they’re not particularly interested in the employer’s mission either. It’s just the opposite, they have their own mission: to conquest and control subordinates. The good news is this: Anna may not be able to escape her Bully and his hostilities in the near term, but she can make his Ring of Fire largely dissipate by outgrowing it politically.

 
Copyright © 2007 Bullying Bosses: A Survivor’s Guide