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Emotional Terrorists are everywhere in the workplace. There is no hierarchy to emotional terrorism – although most of us have worked with/for a boss that wields their authority in a not-so-nice way. A manager can be a jerk to their colleagues or their people and a subordinate can be a bully to peers as well as upward to organizational leadership and business partners. Regardless of the position they hold, they inflict a tremendous amount of damage and chaos into the environment and hurt the brand – usually on a large scale.

The good news, though…surviving these emotional terrorists is a craft, not a science. People are either good or bad at it. If they are bad at dealing with these toxic people, they absolutely can get better at it. There is also a chance [if/when we lack or lose self-awareness] that we could be the emotional terrorists in the workplace. We have to take responsibility for the jerks in our lives, and self-awareness is key to recognizing that the biggest jerk in your life may just be – us – at times.


Robert Sutton, a psychology professor at Stanford University, defines these people in this way: An emotional terrorist is someone who leaves us feeling demeaned, de-energized, disrespected, and/or oppressed. In other words, someone who makes you feel like dirt. There are costs associated with inviting or keeping these people in the organization. They drive out the best people, undermine productivity, creativity, etc. and create chaos in their wake with each interaction. When it is a junior level employee inflicting their emotional terror to their colleagues and upwards through the organization they consume significant time and energy that should be going to the best and brightest in the organization. This frequently leaves top talent feeling ignored or underappreciated.

Terrorism is typically regarded as any type of action or effort made with the express or indirect purpose of causing fear and terror in other people as a result of those actions.

Emotional Terrorists/Jerks/Bullies come in two forms: temporary ones and certified ones. There are certain situations that can turn most of us into jerks, and we have to be aware of that and work on developing techniques to manage ourselves and reflect on how we are behaving and what impact our behavior can/will have on our environment.

Plato famously argued in The Republic that a tyrant, however powerful, ultimately suffers in the end by corrupting his own soul. We can make a similar argument about the emotional terrorist/jerk/bullies in our lives; they may win in the moment but they fail [miserably] as human beings. Most of my friends, acquaintances, and colleagues have all worked with and for people like this. I certainly have. However, in 2015, I made the conscious decision to push back when I encounter these people or walk away from them depending on the situation.


According to Researchers from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York bullies’ brains are wired to get enjoyment from picking on others. According to the researchers, “bullying is motivated by a neurological disorder, whereby the brain activates a reward response to aggressive activity“. The study essential shows there is a faulty neurotransmitter which reduces activity in the part of the brain that usually creates an aversion to violence. A personality disorder is an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that blatantly deviates from the expectations of the individual’s culture. It is often pervasive and inflexible.

If you’re an emotional terrorist, you’re a failure as a human being because you promote unnecessary suffering – all in the name of your personal pleasure.

Workplace bullies often operate from a position of power; in fact, studies show that 80% of bullies are in a position of authority. Often bullies target their peers, their subordinates or others below them in the organizational hierarchy. However – as I surfaced at the beginning of this post – sometimes roles are reversed and the subordinate harasses the supervisor. This is the person that is rarely spoken about. When I think about this junior level emotional terrorist, one person comes clearly comes to mind. This person and their immediate supervisor were constantly stuck in a battle of wills. This person was a manifestly profound liar, terrible with the customer, and seriously cancerous to their district and region in every way. They would abandon their store following mid- or senior-level visits to file complaints with the DOL and EEOC to create a “protected status” for their behavior. I was asked to intervene once as an objective third party at the request of Human Resources – who, ironically, tended to take a very hands-off approach to people behaving badly issues, to identify the root cause of the problem as they couldn’t make heads or tails out of the chaos. At the conclusion of my dialogs with everyone involved, it was extremely clear that the previous District Manager in this market had hired a legitimately horrible and diabolical person who knew exactly how to manipulate the system, The current DM was impacted and simply trying to work through the dumpster fire they’d inherited.

Dealing with emotional terrorists is more complicated than simply saying they are someone who doesn’t care about other people. In fact, a lot of them really do care … they desire to make you feel hurt and upset, they take pleasure in it.

There was nothing that could be done to support or help this under-handed and nasty excuse for a human being and HR was unwilling to take any action. So, I gave the District & Regional Managers who had both been victims of this intensely gross…person, the only options that were available to them or to anyone who is required to deal with emotional terrorists in the workplace.


Objectively, this jerk’s inability to get along with anyone will also – eventually – be their downfall [as it was in the case of the monster that always comes to mind when discussing this topic]. The challenge anyone has is surviving long enough that their career and reputation is not affected negatively by this person. Always keep in mind the bully’s primary goal is to have a corrosive effect on the people around them.

Create a plan: Collect the evidence you need to support this person’s plainly terrible behavior. Pathologically document any/all insubordinate actions, unprofessional conduct, theft of time, and unacceptable work from these people.

Gather a posse: The more people you have that will articulate their experience with this person and that have the intestinal fortitude to speak up, the better.

Freeze the jerk out: This is easier in some industries than in others but coaching people who have experience with this type of person to have the least amount of interaction with them as is possible will help to communicate that the bully has a very limited audience [and that collectively you are on to their nonsense]. This takes the wind out of their sails. [There are a few strategies that I share to do this in a smart and professional manner.]

Have a partner that will be a witness: In the case of the example bully, I suggested the DM/RM never visit this person’s location by themselves. By going alone the bully has an opportunity to create a false narrative about their interaction. If you go in with a partner or have three-way calls with a partner, the bully will not have the ability to create fictitious stories about what was discussed [this was what ultimately led this particular jerk to quit…they couldn’t manifest any more lies because there was always a witness to the visits]. It took approximately two months for them to realize they weren’t able to wreak the havoc and chaos they’d so enjoyed inflicting on their colleagues and leaders. Suddenly, it was no longer fun for them.

Understand they have a disorder: This doesn’t mean give we need to give them latitude to be horrible people, this just means that you have to know who you are dealing with and it’s – likely – not really that personal. They are ill and they are driven by this disorder to behave poorly. There are costs associated with being a jerk/bully in the professional world. Now this person had to start off at square one creating chaos in a new company and building an initial coalition of people to buy into their chicanery. This takes time and energy for even the most devilish characters. Most people today are socially astute and aware. It can be a tough professional road for certified bullies in most workplaces.

Communicate organizational values and reward collaborative behavior: Obviously this doesn’t apply to the jerk as they are about fracturing teams – but when you create a culture of collaboration and other values that support team work, integrity, honesty, and productivity you will find that people that share those values will support your initiatives and help you weed out those that are not invested in cohesion or building rewarding relationships. They will help you create a bully-free zone because they will refuse to be aligned with the jerks and they will out them every chance they get.

Conversely there are a few items I encourage people never to do when they encounter a emotional terrorist in the workplace:

  • Do not appeal to their personal agendas: This is exactly what they want, and if you give in to this – they’ve won. You can’t reason with a bully/jerk. They seek to be held to a different standard than others. In the example I shared, this person didn’t want to have to work their schedule, they didn’t want to adhere to the standards of operations that were required, and they didn’t want to produce results. They actually repelled business. Their personal agenda was to be absolved of any responsibility or standard of expectation and to happily allow others to pick up their slack while they terrorized the people who had to work with them.
  • Never engage them in a power struggle: Doing so will allow them to be the victim of you and the organization. Partner with Human Resources when you are dealing with a bully [even if the bully reports to you]. Let those you report to know what is happening and what your plan of action is to manage this person through the process.
  • Don’t give up trying to be right: You know what right is and you need to maintain the standards of excellence for yourself and your colleagues. It’s easy to give up with this type of character, but don’t…it’s what they want. With a Machiavellian personality, the only thing they usually understand is a display of force. If that’s the case, the best way to protect yourself is to fire back with everything you’ve got and by being ready at all times. Do not give them ammunition to use against you. Be objective, be calm, be prepared, and be strong when dealing with them.