Gifted Technologists & Cybersecurity Pros Must Understand the Root Cause of the Aggressive Bully — Understanding the Research

Sherri Douville
6 min readFeb 26, 2023

Research helps to explain why the most complex work in the world is at the highest risk of creating toxic work environments.

The purpose of this post is to connect the dots between fascinating research tying aggressive behavior to feelings of incompetence. Research shows that the complexity which threatens feelings of competence and ego in many, can lead to unproductive, aggressive behavior.

Being aggressive is right when competing against yourself, or in any sports arena. However, being aggressive doesn’t have a real place in business, healthcare, or personal settings for the most part due to the requirements for psychological safety for optimal teams’ performance.

image credit & worthwhile read:

WARNING: Incompetent aggressiveness will only increase as complexity explodes.

Fast and Chen explored when and why powerful people mistreat others across four studies. They found that people with power became aggressive when they felt incompetent, a pattern that was driven by ego threat. Fast, N. J., & Chen, S. (2009)

“When and why do power holders seek to harm other people? The present research examined the idea that aggression among the powerful is often the result of a threatened ego. Four studies demonstrated that individuals with power become aggressive when they feel incompetent in the domain of power. Regardless of whether power was measured in the workplace (Studies 1 and 4), manipulated via role recall (Study 2), or assigned in the laboratory (Study 3), it was associated with heightened aggression when paired with a lack of self-perceived competence. As hypothesized, this aggression appeared to be driven by ego threat: Aggressiveness was eliminated among participants whose sense of self-worth was boosted (Studies 3 and 4).”

The latter is the evidence for why highly competent professionals especially women and POC must lift as you climb. You have to bring people along because if they feel incompetent and feel as if they’re being left behind, they will lash out. In this way, the aggression isn’t “isms” per se when the underrepresented seem less powerful and therefore an easier “target” for the incompetent aggressive bully.

There is nothing more complex than cybersecurity for healthcare IT and there is no skilled cybersecurity practitioner or leader who hasn’t been aggressively even passive aggressively attacked by an incompetent stakeholder. This isn’t meant as a judgment on the latter; it’s to help the technologist, cybersecurity leader and practitioner cope by intellectualizing the root cause (it isn’t you per se, it’s what you represent, which is competence) and even potentially allowing you to have compassion for those suffering from feelings of incompetence and ego threat, even when that manifests in their wasteful and aggressive behaviors.

“A second paper examined the consequences of this effect on employee voice. Across two studies, including one in a large multi-national corporation, the researchers found that leaders whose managerial efficacy was threatened interacted in styles that stifle employee voice. That’s bad, as receiving and embracing accurate feedback is an essential part of developing managerial competence and leading well over the long-term.

These patterns are harmful to employees, organizations, and the leaders, themselves. The most effective leaders and executives strive to remain humble and open-minded so they can see the world more clearly. It’s harder to lead if everyone around you is afraid to tell you the truth.” Fast, N. J., Burris, E. R., & Bartel, C. A. (2014) h/t Nathanael fast

Unfortunately, if you’re technically gifted with a passion for healthcare, you have to decide now to build a really thick skin, what I call a “spacesuit” against toxicity because while aggressive behavior might be a response to your brains, talent, and potentially the package it comes in; it’s not about the spirit of “you” exactly. That’s how you can decide not to take it personally. It’s even better to strive to have compassion and empathy for the aggressive bully who feels incompetent and threatened. It’s better for YOU, it helps you.

Resources to Rapidly Upgrade Feelings of Competence in Healthcare Technology:

Future & Systems skills:

Building Teams’ Learning Capability: Sherri Douville, Willem P. Roelandts, Karen Jaw-Madson “I Can Love My Leaders (ICLML): Driving Innovation through Culture, Leadership, Management, and Learning,” in Douville, S. (Ed.). (2021). Mobile Medicine: Overcoming People, Culture, and Governance (1st ed.). Productivity Press.

Context and Complexity Skills:

Strategic Leadership for complexity, by Maccoby

Digital Skills (McKinsey):

Transformational Leadership: Harding, Ng, Partridge, Douville “Extinction Is Eminent without Effective Transformational Leadership: Closing Leadership Gaps That Prevent Execution” In: Douville, S. (Ed.). (2023). Advanced Health Technology: Managing Risk While Tackling Barriers to Rapid Acceleration (1st ed.). Productivity Press.

The Criticality of Humility: Brian D. McBeth, Brittany Partridge, Arthur W. Douville, Felix Ankel, “Humility as a Core Value for the Adoption of Technology in Medicine: Building a Foundation for Communication and Collaboration” In: Douville, S. (Ed.). (2023). Advanced Health Technology: Managing Risk While Tackling Barriers to Rapid Acceleration (1st ed.). Productivity Press.

Diagnosing and Squashing Hubris That Blocks Learning: Karen Jaw-Madson, Sherri Douville “Ignore the Dangers of Hubris at Your Own Risk: Mitigating the Barrier to Trust and Respect for High-Performing Teams in Medical Technology” In: Douville, S. (Ed.). (2023). Advanced Health Technology: Managing Risk While Tackling Barriers to Rapid Acceleration (1st ed.). Productivity Press.

Your professional society for ongoing technical and/or functional skills development i.e. medical specialty society, CHIME for health IT leadership, IEEE for engineering etc.


Fast, N. J., & Chen, S. (2009). When the boss feels inadequate: Power, incompetence, and aggression. Psychological Science, 20(11), 1406–1413.

Fast, N. J., Burris, E. R., & Bartel, C. A. (2014). Managing to stay in the dark: Managerial self-efficacy, ego defensiveness, and the aversion to employee voice. Academy of Management Journal, 57(4), 1013–1034.

By Sherri Douville, CEO at Medigram, the Mobile Medicine company. Recognized in 8 categories of top CEOs by Board Room Media (Across SMS, mHealth, iOS, IT, Database, Big Data, Android, Healthcare). Top ranked medical market executive worldwide and #1 ranked in mobile technology categories (mhealth, iOS, Android), #1–2 (on any given day) for the cybersecurity market in the U.S. on Crunchbase. Best selling editor/author, Mobile Medicine: Overcoming People, Culture, and Governance & Advanced Health Technology: Managing Risk While Tackling Barriers to Rapid Acceleration, Taylor & Francis; Series Editor for Trustworthy Technology & Innovation + Trustworthy Technology & Innovation in Healthcare. (contracted to advise top academic and professional education publisher Routledge, Taylor & Francis).

Sherri is the co-chair of the IEEE/UL JV for the technical trust standard SG project for Clinical IoT in medicine, P2933. She is passionate about redefining technology, software and data for medicine and advanced health technologies in a way that’s worth the trust of clinicians, our family, and friends. Ms. Douville leverages her books to inform her work on the CHIME CDH security specialization certification. She also advises and co-founded the Cybersecurity curriculum for the Black Corporate Board Readiness and Women’s Corporate Board Readiness programs at Santa Clara University.