I recently experienced a coaching engagement with the leadership team of a company that had recently undergone a reorganization. As the company grew, the CEO had too many direct reports for him to be effective, so some C-suite-level executives were reassigned to report to others. I worked with two of those leaders who were casualties of the reorganization. They handled the situation with very different reactions.
First, there was Anthony. Here is how some of our conversations went:
- “This isn’t fair. Why am I being singled out?”
- “I’ve been reporting to the CEO for years; this just isn’t right. I’ve earned that privilege and now they are taking away some of my power.”
- “I’m a C-suite player. What is going on? Am I being demoted?”
Next, there was Barbara. Same scenario, but our conversations were much different. She said things like:
- “I understand the CEO made the best move for the organization—I am not taking this personally.”
- “How can I work best with my new supervisor? I have reported to the CEO for years so will need to reassess how I can be most effective.”
- “I’m still a C-suite player, this is just par for the course. Everyone must adjust during a reorg.”
Anthony is looking at the situation from a “self-perspective.” He doesn’t like what’s happened and is lacking the maturity to handle it with grace. He got triggered and started loudly complaining to whoever would listen, without looking within or for a solution.
In contrast, Barbara’s response incorporated a wider lens, and she is more measured. While she certainly doesn’t like the changes, either, she understands the need for the decision. She accepts her new direct supervisor graciously, and she moves on without being reactive.
It’s not that Barbara didn’t have the same feelings as Anthony, but she was able to shift her perspective quickly to a more holistic lens rather than coming to the situation with a chip on her shoulder. And her calm demeanor paid off. After the adjustment period, she was back reporting directly to the CEO.
Not surprisingly, Anthony’s explosive reactivity and immaturity left an indelible mark on his leadership with the CEO. He currently does not report to the CEO.
How Victims Handle Injustice
As we saw from that example, there are two vastly diverse ways to respond to perceived injustice in the workplace. No one likes the word “victim,” but that is exactly the mentality you adopt when you perceive the experience as something that is happening to you. As a victim, you are stuck in a thought process of injustice, abandonment or mistreatment.
But this perspective is often only in the eye of the beholder. Victims will often complain rather than reflect or act. They will ruminate about the situation rather than take any effective action to change it. They feel stuck. On some deeper level, they feel like they are always singled out and things like this often happen to them.
Victim mentality is a psychological term that refers to someone with an external locus of control. They do not believe they are in control of their successes or failures, but rather outside forces such as fate, luck or the mercy of others determine how their lives play out. Most people are blind to this state of mind—it is rare when someone in this mental space can recognize it and take action to get out of it. It’s an entrenched and self-defeating thought process that causes the victim to spin their wheels. They often will not achieve a resolution even if they have the resources.
Victims are often looking for others to rescue them. They are mostly self-oriented and can have a propensity for drama or chaos in their lives. Unfortunately, they don’t realize this can suck the energy and resources from those around them.
When someone is focused on the past or stuck in their stories, they are not taking ownership but rather shifting responsibility to others. They often lack empathy, are quick to get triggered or feel threatened and they unknowingly hurt others.
Four Common Patterns
One 2020 study suggested that victim mentality is a personality trait (though more research is needed). The study dubbed it “Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood” (TIV) and identified four patterns:
- a need to be recognized as a victim
- feeling morally superior
- low level of empathy for others
- constant rumination
A Survivor’s Story
On the other hand, a survivor has an internal locus of control. They believe they have control over their own destiny and take ownership of both their successes and failures. They are action-oriented, forward-thinking and committed to initiating change. They may experience extended periods of discomfort, but they are willing to sacrifice resources to get to a better place.
Survivors don’t come up with excuses or complaints. They actively seek help when they need it; however, their hope remains within themselves rather than external people or factors. They learn from their experiences rather than denying them or deflecting them. If there is fear, they acknowledge it and move through it. They are self-aware and stay courageous in times of adversity.
Can You Transform A Victim Into A Survivor?
If you feel you are prone to a victim mentality, one of the best moves you can make is to be more aware of your complaining so that you can put a stop to it. Strong leaders will look for solutions and bring problem-solving to the table, not complaints. There will be situations in the workplace that you may not have the resources or authority to fix, but a survivor will look for ways to act rather than place blame.
When you can be conscious of the victim versus survivor mentality, you do not get pulled down into deep despair and a “woe is me” attitude. Instead, you adopt a perceptual lens to get through the situation more eloquently, and you strengthen your leadership, your brand and the impact you have in your organization.