Feeling bullied at work? Here’s what to do.
Whether you’re seven or 77, it’s likely you have experienced bullying to some degree. And while the type of bully you deal with as an adult in a workplace is probably quite different from the playground menace you may have faced as a second-grader, you’re never too old to change your perception of—and reaction to—a bully.
Last month we tackled the topic of workplace conflict, acknowledging that difficulty with coworkers is a natural part of professional life and can be dealt with in a variety of ways. (Read it here.) At Real-time Perspectives, though, we sometimes hear about situations where our clients are dealing with more than the average amount of conflict; they’re dealing with a workplace bully. What does that look like?
Various dictionary definitions include “to threaten to hurt someone, often frightening that person into doing something” and the use of “superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.”
Before you jump to conclusions that equate the term “bully” with a co-worker or boss, consider that just because someone exhibits bully-like behavior on a given day, it doesn’t mean that person is necessarily a bully. So before deciding you’ve got a bona fide bully on your hands, do a little investigating: How abusive is this person’s behavior? Is it temporarily unsettling or is it threatening? Could there be a reason why the person might be behaving in a way that’s out of character for him or her? If the behavior is so unnatural that it takes you by surprise, perhaps approaching it from a place of curiosity instead of judgment will mitigate the intensity of the situation. Watch. Ask questions.
-She’s dealing with a lot of stress in her work life, like tight deadlines, a lack of control, tough feedback from her manager, or other professional obstacles that are sapping her patience.
-He’s dealing with a lot of stress in his personal life, like relationship challenges, financial struggles, legal issues, or health issues that are causing short-term personality changes.
-She’s struggling with a combination of personal and professional challenges, like a week where she’s between childcare providers and has a major deadline looming at work.
In the above examples, extenuating circumstances don’t excuse the bullying behavior, but they do explain it (and give hope that, when the challenging time passes, so too will the abusive behavior).
What are good practices to employ early on when bullying tendencies are being exhibited but there is still time to mitigate the effects on you and others?
Try empathetic listening. Though it’s not easy to do when you’ve been the target of bad behavior, sometimes a person who is lashing out just needs to be heard. Don’t attempt to solve their problem—and don’t let them relinquish accountability by pushing the problem onto you! Instead, just be present, acknowledge their feelings, recognize their pain, and ask questions to help them understand the impact of their behavior. This can de-escalate the bully-like interchanges and re-position you as an ally to a colleague who is going through a rough patch. Win/win.
Choose your own response carefully. In our work with clients, they sometimes confess to having knee-jerk reactions that are just as aggressive as the language or behavior they’ve received from the bully. Reacting in kind is a normal, human response—at first. But often our clients recognize that they’ve begun exhibiting reactive behaviors that are very similar to the pattern of bullying they want to extinguish! And that’s usually something they want to change.
What to do when you’ve realized the bullying isn’t a one-time aberration?
Frame the situation. When workplace bullying is ongoing and not related to the temporary circumstances described above, try to take a step back from the situation. While traditional definitions suggest a bully targets someone who is weaker, be confident that this is not about your weaknesses; in fact, it’s likely the bully is seeking you out because he or she recognizes (and then chooses to exploit) a trait in you that helps the bully escape from facing their own deficiencies. Highlighting that trait in a negative way is a defense mechanism that manifests itself through an abusive offense. Remember the axiom “hurting people hurt people” and recognize the bully’s behavior for what it is: a reaction to pain felt by that person.
Protect yourself. If your efforts to connect and empathize have failed and you’re still being targeted with abusive language or behavior, you don’t have to sit there and take it. Literally, this means that when someone is treating you unprofessionally in this way, you can give yourself permission to get up and walk out! Explain that you are disappointed in and/or unwilling to be on the receiving end of this kind of assault. Try to stay calm and remain professional, but don’t be afraid to name the behavior in a straightforward way: “I don’t think your tone is appropriate” or “I will not be treated this way.”
Insist on organizational accountability. If the occurrences of these types of threatening interactions are affecting your ability to do your job, initiate a workplace solution by getting your superiors and/or Human Resources involved. Do your homework by: naming the behaviors, documenting instances of aggression, setting boundaries, and holding the bully accountable. And above all, take care of your mental health by relying on a trusted network of out-of-work friends, family, or coaches who can give you a safe place to land.
Looking for more resources on bullying? See below.