Self-help books speak about going through the stages of coping with disaster or trauma, and describe the process of denial, anger, sadness, and then ultimate acceptance. Just like the grieving process, there is some type of order that can typically be followed when dealing with bullies at work. And for the sake of clarity – a bully is defined as anyone at work who offensively uses their own authority, intellect or power over another employee, to make that person feel threatened, scared, or endangered. Bullies are everywhere, and most of us have dealt with them at some point in life. How do you deal with bullies without letting them distract you from your work?
1. Disarm with Humor and Friendliness
Though not appropriate for all scenarios, sometimes bullies can be distracted from their bullying ways by some fairly small, not-so-blatant peace offerings. In fact, most of the people I’ve known who’ve behaved as bullies at work are often the most insecure or immature people in the whole office, and sadly, the only way they know how to assert themselves or handle conflict is by reverting to the only behavior they’ve learned works for them – pushing others to a place of fear, so that they themselves can capture some feeling of security. This characteristic also makes them easy to spot, and fool, from a mile away, with some fairly benign disarming tactics. An example of how to disarm a bully is by using humor. Tell a joke – make them feel like they’re in on it, like they can relax and let down their wall of insecurity, because they know the joke’s not on them. Often if bullies can feel like an ‘insider’ rather than the person who has to fight their way in, they become more reasonable and easier to deal with.
Another way to disarm a bully is to use overt friendliness, almost to the point of kissing up to them, but not by going too far. Bullies are usually so insecure that they never see this for what it is – a tactic to get them to refrain from bullying you. They’ll start to see you as the ‘nice guy’ who is not threatening to them or competing with them, and they’ll spare you for the moment. This is important for anyone whose career success is dependent upon their relationship with the bully, and where the time is simply not right for a no-holds-barred confrontation, which may come later… But for now, disarm and befriend the bully!
2. Call their Bluff
There really is no place in the workplace for bullies, despite what many of us have experienced time and again over the course of our careers. Bullies are divisive and distracting, and through their negative behavior prevent others from being their best selves at work. The problem is that sometimes you will need to call a bully a bully. However, not in the ‘OK-corral’ confrontational sort of way, with all sorts of tears and high drama, but rather in a matter-of-fact kind of way, that simply states what you will and will not put up with, and how their behavior affects you. A way to do this is over lunch or in a separate meeting. Schedule a lunch with the bully through his or her assistant, or request one directly, with the objective of ‘touching base on a few work-related items’, and when the time comes, lay it all out there. Explain that you feel badly about some interactions you’ve had with each other lately, and that on most occasions you’ve walked away feeling bullied, and want to clear the air, ‘cause those kinds of interactions just ain’t working for you. Even the most hard-nosed workplace bully will feel badly about being seen in that light, and will either try to apologize or explain themselves. Either way, they’ll give you an entrée to explain your side of things, get it all off your chest, and may even provide you with a chance to tell them exactly what you need them to do to make you feel less like you’re being bullied.
3. Make a Formal Complaint
Sometimes bullying behavior is just plain harassment, and needs to be dealt with as such. This is when you need to first complain to your manager, and then to your HR manager. The thing to understand about complaining is that it is not ‘whining’ or being a tattletale or a snitch, but rather doing what almost all companies encourage their employees to do to resolve conflicts. Most employees would be surprised to know that when they complain about a bully, they’re usually not the only one, and their complaint only makes it easier for HR and the person’s manager to address the issue without even mentioning their name. And, even if your name does need to be mentioned and the bully must be confronted very directly, most companies also have a non-retaliation policy in place that protects you from any harm when you do lodge a formal complaint.
4. Move on
Finally, there are those times when disarming the bully, calling the bully’s bluff or even making a formal complaint with your manager or HR, just can’t help you feel at ease in the presence of the one or ones you feel are bullying you. In those cases, you need to simply make a call about what you will and will not put up with. If your company is not supportive of making the changes that will help you feel less bullied, then maybe your best bet is to move on and find a job elsewhere. After all, if the company is one that won’t support you on something like protecting you from counter-productive bullying, do you really want to work there anyway? Maybe you do, for reasons like the compensation and the other people you work with. But if not, then move on. Just remember though, bullies can be found everywhere; in every industry and almost every company. So be prepared.
by Melanie Haniph