Victim mentality at work

Updated: Feb 14


I was in the midst of reviewing this note in my drafts when the news of Bill Michael, the U.K. chairman of one of the leading accounting firms, resignation made the headlines of world’s outlets. I believe there is more to it than what was reported.


The fact holds true: victimhood and victim mentality is a very complex and challenging phenomenon in the workplace. Throughout the decades we have been steadily working toward creating and enacting governance structures, introducing policies that would protect both - employees and a corporation from abuse, enjoying the well-being of all stakeholders involved.


In this article specifically, together with you, we will elaborate on victimhood as an employee’s (of any level) strategy of dealing with the realities of the workplace. Victim playing strategy (also known as victim card and self-victimization) is the fabrication of victimhood for a variety of reasons such as to justify the abuse of others, to manipulate others, a coping strategy, or attention-seeking.


In which circumstances do people resort to using the victim card strategy:


  • Have you ever seen how some of the employees would adore their abusive manager, and this feeling of adoration would be mixed with contempt and despising? In psychology, this phenomenon is often called the Stockholm effect. The effect is viral, as over time the employees directly exposed to an abusive manager would start activating the same strategy toward their juniors and outsiders. Why do they do this? They know what it is to be a victim of an unfair manager - why wouldn’t they be above the despicable behaviours projected by their manager? Because psychologically these people believe that being victims of a situation gives them a carte blanche to hate or hurt others.

  • Poor performance and a wish to get away with undelivered results, expected by colleagues and organization. We trace similar behaviours back to when we were children. Who of us didn’t make the most unbelievable things up when we fail to do homework on time (“My dog has eaten the mockup” old generation would recall, “We didn’t have a proper internet connection to submit the homework” - today’s generation would echo) - with your teacher you would portrait yourself as a victim of circumstance and misfortune. The stakes are getting higher when we speak about working adults start projecting the same.


It is important to note that for the person who uses victim playing this strategy brings more benefits than problems. While for a person (people) who has to deal with it in a professional setting - it is a nightmare.


Those governance structures and policies that have been developed and introduced by corporates to protect the well-being of its employees from harassment and abuse, do by default protect those utilizing victimhood strategies.


As with multiple cases around the world, including within organizations with the most sophisticated and advanced governance, it is very hard to detect, and even harder to prove that it was a malicious manipulative practice by a person.


According to Exploring Your Mind editors, there are 4 ways to recognize the victimizing manipulator:

  • The victim does not directly ask for what they want

  • You feel more or less guilty when you are with that person

  • The victim is also suspicious and distrustful. They often alert you about bad intentions in others and justify their misdeeds through their past suffering.

  • They are able to make great sacrifices for others without them having to ask


Interestingly according to Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at the INSEAD Business School, and author of “Are you a victim of victimhood syndrome?”, there are instances when the “victim” is actually unaware of her damaging behaviour and doesn’t recognize consciously the gains extracted by her behaviour.


Once you have identified that your colleague (a peer, a team member) is prone to manipulate by deploying victim behaviour, what would be the right course of actions?


Regretfully, based on multiple studies available today, there is very little as an employee or manager you can do yourself. To secure the business continuity and prevent sabotage within your scope of work - you would need to introduce a set of extra precautionary measures: focusing on documenting all tractions, confirming all agreements and commitments with a person via emails, documenting fact-based cases to the manager and/or HR as soon as you have a body of evidence.


There is a big difference between a struggling coworker who you, your common manager, or team members could assist with getting up to speed, balancing work-life pressures, filling competence gaps, and a situation when you deal with a victimhood manipulator, who is not looking for support, rather undermine your and your organizational well-being and success.




Have you encountered such behaviours in your workplace? Let us know in the comments below.


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© 2021 by Natalia Sycheva