Sometimes it takes me a while to work up to writing about a certain topic – this is definitely one of those as I understand it can be provocative. However, it is a topic that is a real and pervasive issue in far too many workplaces. I have always had challenges dealing with people who choose to be victims of their lives. It’s constantly something I am working on – as a leader – because dealing with ambitious, driven, accountable people is energizing and engaging for me. I find it incredibly frustrating dealing with people who perceive themselves as victims of the universe. These are people that frequently believe that exceptions should be made for them because their lives are more important | tragic | chaotic than others. These people lack any sense of emotional intelligence to believe that they aren’t alone in suffering pain and emotional trauma from fundamental life experiences. They fail to recognize, every single one of us, even those born into emotionally healthy and happy families, have something that scarred us or defeated us [momentarily] along the way and that we’ve had to pluck up the courage to move past. In the workplace the victim can be a tremendous impediment to productivity and achieving the objectives of the team or organization.
WHY SOME PEOPLE INSIST ON PLAYING THE VICTIM
Victim mentality is an acquired personality trait in which a person opts to recognize themselves as a victim of the negative actions of the their choices, to inflate negative life events and dwell on them – forever, and to behave as if this were the case in the face of clear evidence of such circumstances. Victim mentality depends on clear thought processes and attribution. In most cases, those with a victim mentality have in fact been the victim or have otherwise suffered misfortune as most people have experienced; however, use these life experiences and misfortunes to developing a omnipresent and universal victim mentality where one frequently or constantly realizes oneself to be a victim because life is unfair to them and they have no control over their actions or decisions.
Just to be super clear; there is a gigantic divergence between a) the unfortunate phenomenon of actually being a victim of a tragic event in life and b) living a life with a victim mentality, attitude, or disposition that predetermines a person’s view, response to, and woe-is-me interpretations of situations [they feel or behave like a perpetual or chronic victim].
Speaking from my own experience – my challenge with people who possess the “victim mentality” lies in the consistent drain these colleagues and coworkers place on the work environment – as well as sympathetically supporting their issue(s) and trying to help them see their way out of this self-imposed personality trait while still encouraging [and insisting upon] productivity and accountability. These are also people, again – from my experience – that will seek to assign blame quickly for their performance shortcomings or outright lie to divert attention from their failures.
Having a victim mindset is something people choose to have – no one is born with it – and they choose it because, frankly and unfortunately, it works in most cases. It becomes their go-to strategy to deal with life – whether it is staying safe in one’s comfort zone, getting attention, and/or avoiding any responsibility with their life. I have met people with extraordinary potential who just cannot let go of being victim…thinking that life isn’t going the way they want - it is just too painful and unfair according to them. They spend energy and time to create excuses as to why they are choosing to give away their power to change their situation.
One of the things I have learned to do pretty well in the past several years is to dig deep in dialogs with candidates around their prior boss and colleague relationships. I shape my questions around these relationships with such pablum that the candidate probably doesn’t sense that I am extracting very specific information from them that ties in directly with a consistent challenge in their work environments. I do this to ensure that I am hiring for cultural fit and the signature relationship practices of the team. Studies have shown that in the workplace we generally cannot go for longer than 11 minutes without being needed by a coworker. We want those dialogs and interactions to be productive and aligned with the organization and team’s objectives – or at least fun and happy in nature…not draining. Inviting someone with a victim mentality into the organization is damaging in far too many ways to the company and the team dynamic.
SIGNS THAT SOMEONE MAY HAVE A VICTIM MENTALITY
- They have had consistent challenges in their past work environments with bosses and coworkers;
- Assumes most of their colleagues have negative intentions or “have it out for them”;
- Views other people as happier, luckier, or better and – consistently – has a “woe-is-me” attitude;
- Frequently attempts to elicit sympathy or pity from others by feeling sorry for themselves or telling inappropriate or inflated stories;
- Behaves helplessly and/or isolated in order to avoid discomfort or accountability for their results;
- Generally, is very defensive and self-absorbed [can make any policy, conversation, email into an attack on them];
- Often dwells in the past and assigns blame to past events for current circumstances;
- Consistently focuses [heavily] on problems and will complain about them with others and will never surface solutions to issues;
- This person tends to reject any constructive feedback or performance dialogs or attempts to help them move past victimization and choosing to be great.
A Stanford University study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that playing the victim leads to a sense of entitlement, and to narcissistic or selfish behavior.
5 THOUGHTS ON HOW TO LEAD SOMEONE WITH A VICTIM MENTALITY
I have found when dealing with someone with a victim mentality is that most, likely, don’t want to accept any help, and will react incredibly negatively to any attempts to change their behavior, mindset, priorities, or performance. This can be attributed to something called the secondary gain effect. What that means is that the person with the victim mentality actually may seek out disappointment, because it can give them a “thrill” and it supports their position that the world is against them.
Remember…the “victim” doesn’t want the burden of accepting ANY level of personal accountability for the issues in their lives. These people frequently will become extremely defensive and/or passive-aggressive toward anyone who trying to support accountability and results. Leaders can find these people to be fairly unctous when interacting with them because if they were openly aggressive, it would be more difficult to explain their perceived “tension” in the working relationship on a misunderstanding. There is also the likelihood that the “victim” will quickly, loudly, and robustly blame their leader for causing them further distress.
MAKE SURE THEY DISPLAY THE SIGNS OF A VICTIM MENTALITY: Seriously, in some cases people have a bad or weird day or week and want to share the hilarity of it with their friends|colleagues. Even the happiest, smartest, most ambitious people sometimes shows silly signs of having a victim mentality. But they know when to adjust their mood and behavior and move past the issue to quickly get back on track. People with the true victim mentality don’t know when enough is enough and will quickly transform into a full-blown toxic person. These people overreact to small daily obstacles. They blame you and the people around them for small and insignificant [from other’s perspective] setbacks in their day. They will make something about them that isn’t at all about them. When something doesn’t go exactly to plan, their productivity comes to an immediate halt.
Please, don’t make the mistake – when you know you are dealing with this toxic person – of palliating this as just another bad day or using hope as a strategy that it will fix itself. It won’t. The worst thing you can do – as a leader – is continually ignore the fact that someone’s behavior or personality is starting to negatively affect the team, the team’s performance, and the workplace environment. As a leader you MUST take action. Sit the person down and speak with them directly. Work to fix the situation. Document the conversation.
PARTNER WITH HUMAN RESOURCES AND|OR YOUR DIRECT SUPERVISOR: When dealing with a toxic employee things never seem to get better for long. You may see a short-lived improvement of a few days to a few weeks but they – generally – cannot hold it together for an extended period nor can they just stop being the victim. As I mentioned earlier, taking action [even in the form of a benign dialog] to address and resolve the situation could easily be interpreted by the “victim” as bullying. It’s essential to protect yourself and your organization. Share your documentation with Human Resources [hopefully your HR partners are competent & supportive] and/or your direct supervisor so you have a partner in the situation as you work through it – should anything escalate or there is a lack of improvement by the employee.
In every interaction I have ever had with a toxic team member – even those with the victim mentality – I have an genuine desire to help them overcome this career obstacle. As I mentioned earlier I have seen people with a ton of potential sabotage themselves because they could not let go of their perception that the universe was keeping them down. It’s disheartening and a huge waste of talent and of what could – probably – be a really spectacular person if they could only shed this choice they’ve made.
SET CLEAR GOALS & BOUNDARIES FOR THE TEAM MEMBER: Be firm and extremely clear about the standards of behavior and performance that you expect [remember to bring in the company mission and values to support this dialog]. Explain them concisely and get agreement from the “victim” so there can be no misunderstanding or failure to meet the expectations set forth. As a leader you need to establish and maintain control of the situation to protect the business and team from a toxic presence. It is a smart idea to document the goals and expectations you have and let the team member know that you are there to support their success, marketability, and growth both as an individual and a collaborative member of a team.
INSIST ON PERSONAL AND COLLABORATIVE ACCOUNTABILITY: Unfortunately, in some industries, we don’t seek to determine the competencies of accountability and collaboration when we are talent sourcing which creates some obstacles for team based performance initiatives. However, as leaders of people, we must insist on personal accountability for decisions, results, and team work on the part of each employee. When communicating a project or expectations, explain to your team that it’s their responsibility to surface any potential impediments in a team effort. For example, if one team member’s work or the team result depends on someone else completing a task or producing results, make sure that they alert you and proactively follow up with the other person up if there is any delay. This will help to prevent a “victim” from allowing the delay to become a serious problem that they can possibly blame on someone else.
People who are in the throes of playing the victim will blackmail you with your own emotions [emotional terrorists]. They will hold your kindness, your time, your reputation, or your team’s results ransom until you give them what they want. The only way to combat this is to never allow it. Never negotiate with people who give you emotional ultimatums.
REINFORCE THROUGH DIALOG AND RECOGNITION THAT YOU ARE THERE TO HELP THEM SUCCEED: There are some “victims” who are just a lost cause and there isn’t anything that you can do to help them see another way. These are people that need to be exited from the team. They are energy suckers and can have very negative implications on the work environment. However, there are a few people who can see that there is a better way and just need some help in making better choices, decisions, and understanding they are on a a path that they control [in a good way]. Recognition should be something that is given consistently, objectively, and fairly to all team members who make a difference in the companies performance and the team’s results. Taking time to publicly and privately praise someone whose inclination is to think that no one acknowledges their contributions will help them see that when they produce positive results they receive positive feedback. This will go a long way in helping them realize there is a better and happier way to feel and perform at work.
Each person is different and each situation is a bit different. Your approach with your team is likely different than mine. At my core, I am an active participant in my team’s journey, so it is easy for me to get into these conversations naturally and with relative ease…it may not be the same for everyone. Nevertheless, I hope some of these ideas can help you find a level of comfort and increased capacity to deal effectively with people who have fallen into this self-sabotaging pattern of thinking. At the very least, if all you get from this is an elevated understanding and additional patience and empathy for the other person and some of the demons they may be dealing with, you will be more effective and way ahead of the average leader.