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 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 interesting ones… "
"How am I supposed to finish this report today? I only got the brief the other day… "
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 with all their self-pity. You then get annoyed as their constant blaming of others for their own failings starts to affect team morale and productivity.
In this article, we explore what is meant by a victim mentality, and 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 they are beset by the world, and are 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. They may, in fact, seek out disappointment because it can give them 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 they receive attention or pity as a result of their misfortune. They may also get a perverse "thrill" from showing off the injury caused by others and creating a sense of guilt. Refusing to accept responsibility for a problem can be liberating, too.
Prof Kets de Vries adds that, although this behavior can be counter-intuitive, manipulative and damaging, a "victim" may be genuinely unaware of their own complicity in their problems, and their 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, and you have a responsibility to identify and stop it. The advice given here assumes that you have carefully looked into the circumstances and are reasonably certain the problem lies with the individual, not with another person.
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: their chronic pessimism and "woe is me" outlook can irritate and wear down their colleagues, spoiling the team's overall happiness.
- Damaging for productivity: they may make mistakes or cause delays that they could have prevented, so they can blame others or highlight some perceived difficulty in their working conditions.
- Damaging for relationships: their behavior can swing from "victim" to "victimizer." One minute they may play the "victim" and seek attention, the next they may blame someone else or hurt those who try to help them.
- Damaging for trust: they likely have an external locus of control. This means they believe that everything that happens to them is beyond their control, and is down to fate, luck or other people. As a result, you may not feel able to trust them with any important tasks, or expect them 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 they likely don't want any help – and will react negatively to any attempts to change their behavior or mindset.
This can be attributed to the secondary gain effect. That is, they don't want the burden of accepting personal accountability for the problems that beset them. They may get defensive or act in a passive-aggressive way toward anyone who is just trying to help – if they were openly aggressive, it would be harder for them to blame the resulting tension on a misunderstanding.
There is also the danger that they will accuse the helper of causing further distress. So it's vital that you understand the risk of conscious or unconscious discrimination and are very careful to avoid even the appearance of singling them out.
As a manager, your job is to enable your team members to perform well in their roles. You are not expected to be a therapist, and your strategy must revolve around clear, effective performance management, as outlined in 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 they may have a victim mentality:
- They frequently blame others when things go wrong, or if they don't achieve a goal or target.
- Their conversations tend to be centered around their problems, with an expectation that others will feel sorry for them.
- They may reject the chance to join in with fun workplace activities, or may refuse to admit that they are enjoying themselves.
- They often imply that other people have an easier route to success, because they are given better tasks or preferential treatment.
- They seem to attract a disproportionate amount of drama and misfortune, compared with their peers.
- They may only agree to carry out tasks or requests after subtle displays of passive-aggressive resistance.
Be sure to avoid trying to fulfill the role of a mental health care professional – you will quickly be out of your depth. 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 them and their teams' 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.
Early involvement from HR is wise, helpful and safer for all parties. HR is there to support, advise, to give perspective and to ensure fair play and legal compliance. So, 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.
When raising the issue with HR, be careful to stick to the facts, avoid damaging gossip, maintain confidentiality and strive to preserve people's dignity. For example, a manager can seek advice in a general way from HR, without immediately naming the individual concerned.
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 and agree checkpoints to review progress. But this is really a short-term fix; as a manager you don't want to end up micromanaging them for a long period. 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.
Step 5: Focus on Team Building
Hold regular Team-Building Exercises to strengthen team bonds. 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 them to understand that not everyone is "out to get" them. It could also give them 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 they can later blame on someone else.
Also, give your team members effective feedback. Use these one-on-ones to discuss any support and training needs they might have. This means that a "victim" cannot claim you haven't offered or provided the tools that they need to do their job.
Step 7: Encourage Personal Accountability
Urge your people to be personally accountable for the outcomes of their choices, and to take responsibility for their actions. For example, give everyone, as well as the "victim," a small project. Tell them that they are responsible for completing the task, and for overcoming any challenges that arise. The buck stops with them.
If they can successfully accept responsibility in this safe environment, it will help to build trust between you. This win will help to build the "victim's" self-respect and your trust in them. Let them know that, even if they can't control every circumstance, you expect them to control their reaction to adversity and to overcome it.
Make this an ongoing process rather than a one-off exercise, to help reinforce their acceptance of personal accountability. As they progress, you can increase the size of these projects, or give them projects with greater levels of responsibility.
Step 8: Don't Let the Victims' Standards Fall
If the "victim" continues to miss deadlines and targets, or their behavior becomes too damaging to the team's wellbeing or productivity, it may be necessary to begin disciplinary proceedings. For instance, by issuing 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 failings 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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