Standing up to Bullying in the Workplace

Have you ever come out of an interaction feeling like they won and you lost? They got the thing that they wanted and trampled all over you (whether overtly or covertly)? It really makes you question whether you want to work with that person ever again?

Over the last 15+ year I’ve worked in industry and in academia. I’ve managed people and built collaborations with many people. My approach is to be generally open and interested, trying to help people align their goals and achieve more together.

Occasionally I’ve come across someone who’s approach to achieving their goals is to bully people into submission. To use threats, throw their toys out of the pram and have a full out tantrum (yes we are talking about adults here – and because of the industries and disciplines I work in – usually men). Sometimes their behaviour is more subversive, passive aggressive – agreeing to do one thing to your face, but then never quite getting round to it while they focus on the thing they want to do, or undermining your authority by spreading rumours or gossip.

This behaviour often throws me. I like to see the best in people, and I truly believe you can achieve more by working together. So when someone comes along and abuses that trust, taking what they need and not stopping to understand what you need what do you do?

Firstly don’t let them get to you and don’t rise to them. This amazing video by Brooks Gibbs which demonstrates that what feeds a bully is the energy of your reaction.

At the core, people who try to manipulate others through covert or overt bullying are in a low place and feeling insecure. They want attention to address that insecurity and make themselves feel better. They want you to make them feel important, and as Brooks says, they want dominance. If you let them get to you and give an emotional reaction you are giving them what they are looking for so they will keep on doing it. If you stay calm and centred, don’t get upset, and even treat them like a friend then they don’t satisfy their feeling of superiority and they get bored.

Secondly, be strong and stick up for your own needs. If possible try to negotiate something which gives something for both of you. Don’t just do what they want you to do, thinking it will shut them up and then they’ll leave you alone. If you do what they want this time without standing up for yourself then the chances are they will come back for more or do the same to others. In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective people, Stephen Covey’s 4th habit is to “think win-win”. He explains that  “In the long run, if it isn’t a win for both of us, we both lose”. For example if this person continues to railroad you into doing something when it satisfies none of your needs, then you will start to feel frustrated and resentful and its likely the relationship will break down. He suggests that if you can’t find a solution that is a win for both parties, then they should choose “no deal”.

Thirdly, raise their awareness of their behaviour. It’s quite possible that this person hasn’t realised what they are doing or why, or considered that they are asking you to do something which satisfies their needs or ego without considering yours.  In Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead, she says to be effective leaders “we must find the courage to get curious and possibly surface emotions and emotional experiences that people can’t articulate that might be happening outside of their awareness”. To address bullying behaviour we must be courageous and take the lead. Consider explaining your position and how it’s coming across to you, using examples and evidence of your experiences, how you’ve interpreted these things and the impact it is having on you. It’s important here that you explain the impact in a non-judgemental, non accusatory way. Aim for for an adult-to-adult discussion to minimise defensiveness. They may find it difficult to see or accept at first, so give them time. Raising their awareness of their behaviour and how you experience it might be all that’s needed to make a change.

Finally, the most important thing to realise is that you are not doing anything wrong. In fact it’s probably that you are doing something right and the other person is feeling insecure. They may be feeling jealous of you or threatened by you, and so by using bullying behaviour they are trying to raise their own self-importance. Recognising this can be extremely powerful in both figuring out how to deal with and approach this person, and in letting go of responsibility and accepting they have their own internal battles to fight.  

None of these are quick fixes and may take time to have an effect, but by staying strong, setting boundaries and consistently acting in an adult manner will either help you create a more positive relationship with this person, by changing their behaviour or resulting in them leaving you alone. 

Feature photo by Sarah Cervantes on Unsplash

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