Have you ever dealt with someone at work who behaves like some of the most annoying, high-conflict people you’ve encountered in social media settings?

An online troll “someone who leaves an intentionally annoying or offensive message on the internet, in order to upset someone or to get attention or cause trouble.” Similarly, a generic troll is someone who would “intentionally do or say something annoying or offensive in order to upset someone, or to get attention or cause trouble.”

One of the key definitional elements is intent. Troll behaviour is about intentionally trying to get under someone’s skin, even when followed by astonished denials if called out on it. Deeper intentions may vary. The behaviour could be designed simply to annoy or distract a perceived opponent or competitor. Or maybe it’s part of a more orchestrated campaign to undermine a co-worker.

Trolling definitely can be characterized as intentionally aggressive, passive-aggressive, or manipulative in nature. As such, repeated, frequent trolling can be a component of workplace bullying or mobbing.Not every provocative or disagreeable statement or idea is trolling, even if it’s likely to stir discomfort or discontent. For example, just because someone opposes an idea you’ve expressed in a meeting doesn’t mean you’re being trolled. It could happen multiple times, in fact, due to fundamental differences of opinion about the matters at hand.

Furthermore, even when possessing the best of intentions, many of us are capable of saying something annoying or offensive during the course of a spirited conversation. Perhaps we were misunderstood, in which case hopefully we get a chance to explain ourselves more clearly. In circumstances where we said something we regret, then ideally we’d have an opportunity to apologize and possibly change our mind. These instances aren’t trolling, either.
But let’s say you become aware of an individual who often operates in a disingenuous space, frequently setting up “straw men” in discussions or mischaracterizing information or opinions for the apparent purpose of being critical, disruptive, or engaging in button-pushing. And maybe it involves a sort of “stalky” tracking or following of someone to continually hassle them in this way. Well then, that’s troll territory, and whether online or in-person, it’s no fun to deal with.

Trolling and gaslighting are related concepts and practices. Both are intended to mess with someone’s head, and both are typically conducted under a veneer of civility. Gaslighting is a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. In both intensity of behaviour and malicious intent, a targeted step up from trolling.

Trolls can push people’s buttons. They intend to provoke. And if they push hard enough, they may prompt an angry, accusatory response from the target of their attentions. When that occurs, the trolls may be the first to claim victim status. In workplace bullying situations the perpetrator is an expert button pusher. The target reacts emotionally, perhaps even accusing the perpetrator of wrongdoing, while the latter responds with incredulous disbelief and claims that they are being victimized. The “judo flip” having been completed, the target is put on the defensive.

Dealing with genuine troll behaviours at work
Effective trolls are devious and clever. They contemplate what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it for maximum effect. In terms of psychological makeup, some of the worst workplace trolls may have a personality disorder, such as narcissism, sociopathy or psychopathy. Despite the diminutive imagery of the term, trolls can be pretty disturbed and determined individuals. It’s one thing to deal with a nasty troll on social media, but it’s quite another to deal with such an individual at work. Put simply, the stakes are typically higher when it involves one’s employment.

For dealing with social media trolls:
• “Avoid the engagement trap.” — In other words, don’t go down the rabbit hole with a troll, having fallen for the bait set out by the troll.
• “Frame the issue from your own viewpoint.” — Use your frame and perspective, not the troll’s.
• “Block liberally.” — Drop, block, mute, unfriend, whatever.
Three rules for surviving trolls at work::
• “Kill them with kindness” — As in most bullying cases, the other person is likely dealing with their own insecurities and is taking it out on others. Show them kindness and empathy, and it will likely suppress the trolling. Don’t let them pull you into their negativity, instead pull them into your serenity.
• “Use humour to counteract.” — Trolls like to make others the brunt of their jokes. They love the reactions and attention it brings from others. However, if you’re wittier than they are, they will likely back down.
• “Address them individually” — When kindnesses and wit doesn’t work, it’s time to call the person out and address the situation face-to-face. When stating how you feel, use “I” statements. They prevent the other person from shifting the blame or minimizing the severity, and they clarify the impact of the person’s behaviour.