Diffusing Workplace Bullies

bullying at workI recently wrote about five types of difficult people at work. But what if the difficulty is that your colleague is just a plain old jerk? A bully, even! When I think of a bully, I immediately picture a big heavy kid picking on a smaller child at the playground. The difference between adult and child bullies is that adults are less obvious, sneakier, more cunning with their bullying tactics. This means their manager often doesn’t see the same behaviors that you experience. Or worse, they are allowing it to occur or may be enabling them.

Adult bullying in the office includes ongoing patters of unjust blaming, unreasonable demands, insults, putdowns, ignoring/excluding/isolating, stealing credit, sabotage, threatening, criticizing, bending the rules to apply or not apply as convenient, limiting access to resources, and minimizing others’ accomplishments. And this is where the problem lies. All of these things happen at one time or another as isolated incidents and we may brush them aside. But when there is an ongoing pattern of this behavior, it is bullying and it has many negative consequences for the individuals involved as well as the company.

Organizations can address workplace bullying by using mediation/coaching interventions and organizational development tools. But what can you do if don’t have such support and you seem to be fighting the fight by yourself? Or what about the confusing scenario in which your “bully” is overall a good person and a hard-working employee, but has moods when they exhibit these bullying behaviors?

  • Define your boundaries. Figure out which behaviors you will tolerate and which you won’t. Some of us are more patient than others, but eventually all of us have a point where that patience runs out. Estimate when that is and draw the line a couple of steps before that point of occurrence. Plan your strategy ahead of time so you don’t have to do the difficult thinking during a heated moment.
  • Talk to them later. If your bully is prone to emotional mood swings, they may be seeing red and acting without thinking. To attempt to use rational appeal at this time would be a mistake and would likely only escalate the situation. Wait until they have calmed down and explain to them how what they said or did hurt you.
  • Write it down. Keep a log of bullying behaviors and write out your thoughts and feelings after a bullying episode. Besides having an immediate calming effect, this will make sure you don’t minimize the episode later and can help you explain the situation to your manager or a co-worker if you choose to go that route.
  • Talk to someone. If you’re more of a talker than a writer, find someone you trust—perhaps a mentor—with whom you can discuss the situation. Also consider cautiously bringing up the topic with your coworkers; you might find that others are being bullied as well and you can work to address the situation together.
  • Find an ally. While some people attack back when being bullied, others freeze up completely. Neither of these are a good solution. An outside perspective can really help with this. Is there someone you can trust to step in? Let them know about the bullying behavior and how you might react and discuss what you need them to do.
  • Consider empathy. Does anyone really want to be a bully? Bullies often have their own issues, including feeling threatened by the ones they pick on, or simply an ignorance of a better method of communicating. Put yourself in their shoes for just a quick minute to see if any solutions come up from viewing the situation from their perspective. Don’t fall into the trap of sympathizing; what they are doing is still wrong!
  • Don’t always let it go. At the risk of sounding cynical, people will treat you how you allow yourself to be treated. You can, however, set and revise those expectations about how people interact with you.

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Posted in People Management


  • Bobspaugh

    Hello Eva;

    I enjoyed reading your Bully theory and how to Cope or Deal with these problems.  If one confronts a “Boss” who has “position power” and that is the mode they seem to deal from, we can all have a thing happen called insurmountable objectives.  Your address sounds much like a gentleman from days gone by, I have read most of his books, Richard W. Wetherill, he wrote several books all about peoples “Distortions”  and “Command-Phrasing” we all somewhat use in our thinking, makes much sense!  Richard Wetherill was an enlightend man, he coined the theory of “The Law of absolute Right”, he wrote books such as “Do Right or go Wrong” “Think what is right-say what is right-& Do what is Right” he wrote and dealt as an arbitrator for large companies and with individuals as well all whom had “Behavioral” issues.  I like his books and I benefit greatly from them, it has helped to eliminate so many of my own distortions of thought, I still am cleaning out my own “Brain”  he used this quip; “Take your Brain out of Chains”…..I like that quote!

    I recently left my former company, after dealing with a “Boss” who was dishonest with me, often cheating me out of pay and commisions I had “Rightly” earned.  Many times over 12 years of employment, I tried and tried to get him to correct dishonest behavior towards me, I could never get him to make any kind of commitment to solid reasoning!  So, I resigned and upstarted my own company just recently, two weeks ago, the old “Boss” has already filed a law-suite agaisnt me.  I was his key-top producer, and since we were in the sales & marketing business, he feels I am a threat to his business now.  He has a vicious lawyer, attempting to intimidate me, scare me, as I am launching my company! 

    I will overcome all of his insults and vicious attacks against me, but it is like childs play, and he is acting like a child, but it is very plain to see, he is very fearful of me now.  He is worried about our new company taking a bunch of his business away.  I am in business for myself now and I treat all potential customers the same, whether I have delt with them in the past or if I have just been introduced to them.

    I could write a book about business & bullies, they don’t need to be big in size physically, they can be rather intellectual and of small stature, but they can be controlling and use you if you allow them to do so.

    my email is:  bobspaugh@att.net  this is my personal.  My company is:  bob@ctvss.com  my web-site is: CTVSS.Com
    I would lioke very much to chat with you sometime in the future!


    Bob Spaugh

    • Thanks for your comment Bob! First time I am hearing of Mr. Weatherill. So sorry you have had to deal with a bully boss… that sounds like a difficult and frustrating situation! You are right, sometimes you reach the point where there isn’t too much else that can be done except exit the situation. Good luck to you and your business. 

  • – – If you get no results from above, and please try above first.! You can arrange an industrial accident.! – – HA HA

  • Wesley Crusher

    Thanks so much for this website. I have a bully in my office in Japan who aggressively dominates the quiet work space by speaking in a loud, unnaturally high pitch voice. It is irritating and disruptive, because you can’t hear yourself think at your desk. I’ve seen her exposing herself to a male colleaugue in the office during office hours. Japan is known as a productive place to work, but this is counter culture gone wild. I’ve managed the situation by blankly refusing to return her fake smiles, getting up suddenly and leaving my desk the moment she starts speaking, ignoring her if she calls my name in a breathy come get me whorey way, and if she’s talking to management, I interrupt the conversation with a loud request to talk to one of the VPs about something work related. I’ve also recorded her empty loud conversations on tape and have loudly interjected with “not again!” or “come on, please” if she invades a space where I’m working and I’m not able to get away.

  • Jan Brady

    I enjoyed your article and it really gave me a new insight into my problem.  I work with a major bully, he has harassed me for over a year and I really don’t see an end to it in sight.  He has ignored me in front of other co-workers, glared at me with undisguised hate, made noises at me, done a weird dance when he sees me across the room and other rude and insensitive things.  Management refused to take any action against him because the bullying happened when I was alone with him,  ( I make sure I am never alone with him if I can avoid it.)  When questioned he lied, claimed he had no contact with me (when in fact, he goes out of his way to have contact with me) and told management that I had a issue with anger management and he was worried about the safety of my family. So, the bulling goes on.  My only hope is that my section will be moving to another building soon and I won’t have to see him on a daily basis.  Thanks for letting me vent.

    • Sorry to hear about the bullying but glad you have found new insight. Had you not provided context, I’d have assumed you were talking about a fellow third grade classmate. Never ceases to amaze me adults are capable of acting like this! 

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