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Nov 28, 2022

Anger management and academic bullying

Over the years, I've encountered several individuals who seem to possess all the leadership qualities, with one minor yet critical exception: they can't control their rage. For simplicity, let's call them academic bullies. These people are often intelligent, sophisticated, energetic, and well-organized. Moreover, they tend to be good communicators and possess a certain degree of charisma. You'd expect them to take on more responsibilities and advance in their careers. However, they have a significant flaw: they can't help being nasty. During routine work conversations, something triggers them, causing them to lose control and utter or write something unkind. This kind of flaw may be tolerated in some types of private businesses, but in academia, most authority relies on the support from a wide array of constituents. These individuals don't get elected, appointed, or promoted. They fail the test of sound relational instincts. Most people can intuitively discern between someone merely being irritated and someone being mean. While ordinary folks may become angry with each other, they also tend to calm down and rebuild their relationships. They still sense the point of no return during their bouts of anger and avoid crossing it. Bullies, on the other hand, cross it repeatedly. Deep-seated insecurity and possibly a degree of self-loathing drive them to seek instant gratification from belittling others. They're often aware that this isn't the best strategy, but the urge to demean others is too strong. Regardless of the consequences, they can't help themselves. Certainly, bullies gain nothing from their behavior. In fact, they often damage their own careers and opportunities.

At some point, a vicious cycle takes root: Correctly sensing hostility from others, the bully develops a victim complex, which shields them from any potential self-reflection. They lose sight of those they victimize, but become acutely aware of their own perceived victimization. Once the capacity to repent is lost, no relational growth is possible. Negative relational dynamics tend to harden, fall into self-reinforcing patterns, and ultimately make relational healing impossible. All past events slot into a rigidly constructed narrative of mutual hostility. Eventually, any functional group will find ways to isolate bullies, either by ignoring them or by granting them a small domain to control. They become sad and angry; their talent goes to waste. I wish I had a foolproof method to prevent this, but I don't. Among all the issues we tackle in academia, these unhappy individuals represent the most difficult to resolve. In this week following Thanksgiving, I am grateful that these are rare exceptions.


  1. Anonymous9:14 AM

    This is so good! And insightful!

  2. Not that rare, and wildly distributed across the institution as I have learned from working in multiple colleges and departments. The "rigidly constructed narrative of mutual hostility" unfortunately is crippling some parts of the institution to the detriment of our reason for existing: education and new knowledge.

  3. Anonymous7:16 PM

    Very insightful