14 MIN READ
Managing a Person With a Victim Mentality
Dealing With Team Members Who Won't Take Responsibility
Chances are, you've shared an office with people whose lives seem to be a series of dramas that are never their fault. As soon as they sit down, you wait for them to tell their latest tale of woe. And they rarely disappoint!
"Why do I always get the menial tasks? It's so unfair! Everyone else gets the juicy, interesting ones… "
"How am I supposed to finish this report today? She only gave me the brief the other day… "
"It's not my fault I'm late again. My girlfriend needed to use the car this morning and I had to get the bus."
Does that sound familiar? If so, you could be working with someone with a "victim mentality."
At first you listen with concern, then you get a bit bored of all their self-pity. You then get annoyed as their constant blaming of others for their failings at work and in life starts to affect team morale and productivity.
In this article, we explore what is meant by a victim mentality, and we look at how you can deal with this potentially damaging trait.
What Is a Victim Mentality?
Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at the INSEAD Business School in France, described a victim mentality in his working paper, "Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?"
Prof Kets de Vries says that someone with a victim mentality feels that he or she is beset by the world, and is always at a disadvantage because of other people's machinations or lack of consideration.
But it isn't just fate that causes a "victim" to experience more difficulties than other people. He may seek out disappointment, because it can give him a "kick" that psychologists call a secondary gain. This is when not resolving a problem can actually have benefits.
For example, someone with a victim mentality can feel pleasure when she receives attention or pity as a result of her misfortune. She may also get a perverse "thrill" from showing off the injury caused by others and creating a sense of guilt. And refusing to accept responsibility for a problem can be liberating.
Prof Kets de Vries says that, although this behavior can be counter-intuitive, manipulative and damaging, a "victim" may be genuinely unaware of his own complicity in his problems, and his secondary gain may be subconscious.
It's vital to consider the possibility that the individual in question is actually being victimized. Bullying in the workplace can be subtle but devastating for people's self-confidence, and you have a responsibility to identify and stop it. The advice in this article is given on the assumption that you have carefully looked into the circumstances and are reasonably certain that the problem lies with the individual, not with another person.
Don't confuse victim mentality with victim syndrome. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but "victim syndrome" is more accurately a short form of Narcissistic Victim Syndrome, which refers to real victims of a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
What Are the Dangers of a Victim Mentality?
A team member with a victim mentality can pose real problems for you as a manager, and for the rest of your team. Here are four negative impacts that it can have.
- Damaging for morale: her chronic pessimism and "woe is me" outlook can irritate and wear down her colleagues, spoiling the team's overall happiness.
- Damaging for productivity: she may make mistakes or cause delays that she could have prevented, so that she can blame other people or highlight some perceived difficulty in her working conditions.
- Damaging for relationships: her behavior can swing from victim to "victimizer." One minute she may play the victim and seek attention, the next she may blame someone else or hurt those who try to help her.
- Damaging for trust: she likely has an external locus of control. This means she believes that everything that happens to her is beyond her control, and is down to fate, luck or other people's behavior. As a result, you may not feel that you can trust her with any important tasks, or expect her to take responsibility for an outcome.
Managing a Person With a Victim Mentality
According to Prof Kets de Vries, one of the problems of dealing with someone with a victim mentality is that he likely doesn't want any help, and will react negatively to any attempts to change his behavior or mindset.
This can be attributed to the secondary gain effect that we looked at earlier. That is, she doesn't want the burden of accepting personal accountability for the problems that beset her. She may get defensive or act in a passive-aggressive way toward anyone who is just trying to help. (If she were openly aggressive, it would be harder for her to blame the resulting tension on a misunderstanding.)
There is also the danger that he will accuse the helper of causing further distress. So it's important that you understand the risk of conscious or unconscious discrimination, and to be very careful to avoid even the appearance of singling him out.
Be sure to avoid trying to fulfill the role of a mental health care professional – you will quickly be out of your depth. In his 1964 book, "Games People Play," psychiatrist Dr Eric Berne described some of the roles that people adopt in their relationships, and the psychological games that we all play. He also described how challenging it can be even for a therapist to deal with a "victim." You can explore Dr Berne's theory further in our article, Transactional Analysis.
As a manager, your job is to enable your team members to perform well in their respective roles. You are not expected to be a therapist, and your strategy must revolve around clear, effective performance management. Follow these eight steps:
Step 1: Identify the Signs of a Victim Mentality
If a team member regularly displays some or all of the following traits or behaviors, it's possible that she may have a victim mentality:
- She frequently blames others when things go wrong, or if she doesn't achieve a goal or target.
- Her conversations tend to be centered around her problems, with an expectation that others will feel sorry for her.
- She may reject the chance to join in with fun workplace activities, or may refuse to admit that she's enjoying herself.
- She often implies that other people have an easier route to success, because they are given better tasks or preferential treatment.
- She seems to attract a disproportionate amount of drama and misfortune, compared with her peers.
- She may only agree to carry out tasks or requests after subtle displays of passive-aggressive resistance.
Be careful to leave it to psychiatric professionals to make diagnoses. As a rule, avoid labeling people and reducing them to a stereotype.
Step 2: Consult Your HR Department
If you believe that you are dealing with a team member who has a victim mentality, and it is affecting his and his colleagues' performance, consult HR about the situation.
As we highlighted earlier, taking independent action to resolve the situation could easily be seen by the "victim" as bullying. It's essential to protect yourself by not appearing to be a bully. Outline the steps that you plan to take, and ask HR to advise on and approve each one. Keep them informed at every stage, so that they are prepared to step in and mediate, or to take stronger action if necessary.
Step 3: Set Clear Goals and Boundaries
Be firm about the standards of behavior and performance that you expect. Explain them clearly and get agreement from the "victim" so there can be no "wiggle room" for failure. You need to establish and maintain control of the situation.
For example, set clear deadlines for tasks and projects, agree checkpoints to review progress, and make it clear whether you expect her to initiate any action or wait for instructions from you or someone else.
This is really a short-term fix; as a manager you don't want to end up micromanaging her for a long period of time. If this happens, you may need to consider the actions we highlight in step eight, below.
Step 4: Keep a Detailed Record
Record your observations, and keep careful notes on the actions that you take and the work that you delegate. Reviewing the evidence that you collect will help you to understand better what is going on, and having a record will help you to counter any accusations that you are acting unfairly or being a bully.
Also, keep a record of the resources, training, raises, promotions, discussions, and perks each team member gets. Make sure that everyone gets their fair share of tough or unpopular assignments. And carefully document your observations about their performance and professional conduct.
Step 5: Focus on Team Building
Hold regular Team-Building Exercises to strengthen the bonds between your team members. Include gratitude exercises, in which people write messages of thanks to one another. This will help to focus everyone's attention on where they are being helped and supported.
It may also result in the "victim" receiving thanks from a colleague. This could help him to understand that not everyone is "out to get" him. It could also give him some pride in taking responsibility for the team's successes.
Step 6: Establish Clear Lines of Communication
Tell your people that it's their responsibility to "flag up" any potential bottlenecks in a project. For example, if one team member's work depends on someone else completing a task, make sure that they alert you and chase 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 she can blame on someone else.
Also, give your team members effective feedback. Use these one-on-one meetings to discuss any support and training needs that they might have. This means that a "victim" cannot claim that you haven't offered or provided the tools that she needs to do her job.
Step 7: Encourage Personal Accountability
Urge your people to accept personal accountability for the outcomes of their choices, and to take responsibility for their actions. For example, give each of them, including the "victim," a small project to complete, and tell them that they are responsible for completing the task, and for overcoming any challenges or problems that arise. The buck stops with them.
If he can successfully accept responsibility in this safe environment, it will help to build trust between you. This win will help to build his self-respect and your trust in him. Let him know that, even if he can't control every circumstance, you expect him to control his reaction to adversity and to overcome it.
Encourage him to see it as an opportunity to demonstrate that he's ready for more responsibility. Make it clear that he isn't being set up for failure, as he's unlikely to view such experiences in a positive light.
Make this an ongoing process rather than a one-off exercise, to help reinforce his acceptance of personal accountability. As he progresses, you can increase the size of these projects, or give him projects with greater levels of responsibility.
Step 8: Don't Let Standards Fall
If she continues to miss deadlines and targets, or her behavior proves too damaging to the team's wellbeing or productivity, it may be necessary to begin disciplinary proceedings or to issue a formal warning. Continue to involve an HR representative in all of your meetings and discussions. Having an objective third party present to listen, mediate and take notes can help to discourage false accusations or claims of victimization at a later date.
If performance or behavioral issues continue without any sign of improvement, be prepared to say "enough is enough." You owe it to the rest of your team, and to your organization, to act promptly and not to get involved in a long drawn-out conflict.
People with a victim mentality believe that all of their ills and misfortunes can be blamed on someone or something else. Their endless dramas and excuses can be damaging for team morale and productivity, and need to be dealt with swiftly and effectively.
But it's important to avoid any accusations of discrimination, bullying or unfair treatment. So involve HR as soon as you believe that you are dealing with someone with a victim mentality. Keeping a detailed record of your interactions with a "victim" can also help with this.
You can also use team-building exercises to increase trust and engagement within your team, but don't let perceived injustices excuse poor performance or negative behavior.
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