At a glance
- Love bombing is a toxic behaviour sometimes seen in romantic relationships.
- More recently, it has been recognised as occurring in workplace relationships.
- Typically, a colleague initially lavishes attention on a new employee to manipulate them, then abruptly pulls away.
The term “love bombing” has gained prominence in recent years to describe a toxic pattern of behaviour in romantic relationships. It involves one partner lavishing excessive attention and affection on another before abruptly pulling away.
The term was originally coined in the 1970s to describe strategies practiced by religious cults to entice new recruits to join them.
There is now increasing recognition that love bombing occurs in the workplace, and that it has serious repercussions for mental health and broader organisational productivity.
Love bombing is often a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder. It can manifest as “ghosting” – disappearing without explanation – and as gaslighting, where a person’s perception of reality is manipulated and destroyed.
Understanding the fundamental drivers of narcissism is key to identifying and responding to love bombing.
Narcissistic behaviour is motivated by a desire to project a positive image and receive attention in the form of praise.
“At its core, narcissism is a psychological wound,” says Michael Bunting, leadership development expert and the author of Vertical Growth.
“It is compensation for a lack of self-worth. Its source is usually trauma in childhood.”
Bunting emphasises that narcissism is something we all have, to differing degrees.
“The part of us that worries about how people think about us is the narcissistic part of ourselves,” he says. “It is the part of the self that wants to look a certain way in order to get someone’s approval.”
Narcissism reaches a disordered level when a person opts to maintain their version of events over the truth to validate their self-image.
“Narcissism is the hardest of the disorders to fix,” says Bunting.
“Narcissists are usually the last people to acknowledge that they have an issue. They keep doubling down on their ‘perfection’.”
Unfortunately, many people find themselves at the receiving end of a narcissist’s negative feelings and think they must tolerate it to maintain their employment.
“The workplace is full of narcissists,” says Bunting. “Why? Because narcissists have a particular skill set, which is to ignore your feelings and push for what they want.
"They are very good at self-promoting, and often the game to climb the corporate ladder involves self-promoting.”
Love bombing most often manifests in manager–employee relationships when the employee is new to the company. The new employee is naturally keen to make friendships and be accepted by their colleagues, which makes them a vulnerable target.
A manager may ask the employee for a coffee on their first day – and every single day thereafter – and lavish them with praise in front of other colleagues.
The victim may start to feel embarrassed and worried that their new colleagues resent them for being the clear favourite.
“It starts off as being not much different from other relationships, in terms of it simply being positive,” says Peta Slocombe, psychologist and CEO of Performance Story.
“There are moments when it feels really good. You get positive feedback from your boss, and you’re walking on air – it is only further down the track that you realise there was a price for it.”
After the praise comes the silent treatment, or being passed over for a promotion that had been promised earlier, explains Athena Ali, career coach and founder of The Get Noticed Coach.
“It happens because you asked for something, or maybe you had a different opinion [from them]. All of a sudden, you’re not their favourite person anymore,” Ali says.
Ali has experienced love bombing in the workplace first-hand.
“It had a terrible effect,” she says. “Love bombing affects the rest of the organisation, too. The victim either doesn’t get their work done, or it is done under fear.
"The person doing the love bombing spreads a culture of fear, and people who see it happening are too scared to call it out.”
Slocombe regards love bombing in the workplace as more insidious than when it occurs in romantic relationships, because professional relationships count on impression management and the ability to influence people to achieve success.
The love bomber is taking advantage of another person’s newness and desire to be perceived well.
“It is insidious, because love bombing appears to be synonymous with success and integration early on at a new role,” says Slocombe.
Instead of the relationship becoming less intense as the new employee finds their feet, love bombers tend to step up their affections.
As Slocombe explains, this stage is sometimes referred to as “grooming”, because there is a specific intent to increase contact. It is, essentially, a period of manipulation.
How to spot love bombing
It can be difficult to distinguish between genuine praise and patterns of love bombing in the workplace.
It's especially difficult for a new team member who is unfamiliar with the personalities of their new colleagues.
One of the first red flags a person may notice is that the feedback is overwhelmingly positive, says Slocombe.
It's simply unrealistic that a manager would bestow a person with preferential treatment and only praise, even if they are new.
Another red flag is if the surfeit of praise continues for more than a few days. The telltale sign is when, suddenly, without an apparent explanation, the relationship sours.
Perhaps the victim asked to take leave or challenged the love bomber by disagreeing with their opinion – this can be enough for a drastic change in behaviour.
“Another sign is when you are not telling people what is going on,” says Slocombe.
“Often people start to recognise that it’s not healthy, and they almost feel a bit embarrassed. A good strategy is not to keep your feelings of discomfort a secret. It takes a lot of courage, but it will take the shame out of it.”
If the victim thinks they have contributed to the grooming phase – even by something as benign as responding to a text message that complimented them – this can exacerbate feelings of shame. It may make them reluctant to tell anyone else, because they see themselves as partly responsible.
“It puts them in an untenable situation, which is often when depression starts to kick in,” says Slocombe.
Gaslighting at work: what you need to know
Jon Michail, group CEO of Image Group International has seen love bombing destroy self-esteem and trigger mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
“It does reputational damage, too,” he says.
“As our reputations are associated with self-identity, it is essential for our wellbeing. When it gets attacked, we suffer.”
Michail does not hesitate to conclude that finding a way to put an end to the emotionally abusive situation is paramount.
“Self-respect is more important than the job,” Michail says.
However, Slocombe does not advocate going head-to-head with a narcissist, because this can inflame the situation.
“My advice would be to push back a bit,” Slocombe says.
“Try to delay or dilute their behaviour. For example, if they invite you to have coffee, say something like, ‘That might work. I’m not sure, so I’ll get back to you’. Instead of agreeing with them about everything, say, ‘That’s an interesting perspective’.”
While a love bomber often isolates their victim, befriending colleagues can help. Knowing that you are not alone can be empowering.
It can eliminate shame and help a victim once they learn that this is a pattern of behaviour from the love bomber, rather than something new.
Reclaiming boundaries is an important early step to minimising a love bomber’s behaviour, says Michail. He encourages victims to listen to their inner voice and trust their gut feeling.
“Love bombers don’t like boundaries,” Michail says.
“They only like their own boundaries. They have built an image of themselves that, in many cases, is based on perception rather than reality. Setting boundaries as to what you are willing to put up with is essential.”