Diffusing Workplace Bullies

Dec 7, 2011
6 Min Read

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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