How To Handle The Office Bully
Corporations have come a long way in developing policies for dealing with sexual harassment. But what about office bullies? Isn’t that also a form of harassment? Similarly to sexual harassment, office bullying can create a hostile work environment that not only makes it difficult for people to function, but also has a detrimental effect on their emotional, and even physical health. Since most people spend more waking hours in the workplace than anywhere else, the office bully is a serious threat to the well-being of workers everywhere.
The good news is that there are ways to cope with bullies. The most important way is to remove their reward. People bully because they enjoy controlling people by intimidating them. They bully people who don’t stand up for themselves and allow themselves to be controlled. Remove the ability to control, and you’ve just taken away the bully’s reward, and therefore their motivation.
In order to do this, you must be assertive. Do not resort to the bully’s low level of behavior, but do not allow yourself to be intimidated, either. Stand up for yourself without personally attacking the bully. But don’t be overly defensive — this could signal weakness to the bully and make the situation worse. Simply state the facts and move on.
Often bullies are sneaky (cowards in disguise). They will make indirect remarks that place your reputation into question. They will twist facts, omit important details and tell half-truths. They will make ambiguous statements that leave doubt in the listener’s mind. When this happens, the best way to respond is to look the bully in the eye and ask “What do you mean by that?” This places the bully in a position where they must defend themselves. Congratulations, you have just shifted the dynamic. You have now joined the offense, placing the bully by default into the defensive position. This will confuse and disorient the bully. And there is nothing more satisfying than a confused bully.
Another effective response is silence. This works best in person, where you can look directly at the bully to indicate that you have heard him or her, and are choosing not to grace them with a response. Body language is key here. Don’t smile or nod, rather, give them a slightly disgusted or exasperated look.
Lastly, if the bully is outright abusive, simply tell them you aren’t going to allow them to speak to you like that. Chances are, none of their previous victims has ever had the courage to do this, and so again, you are disorienting the bully. More importantly, you are training the bully by removing the reward for their behavior.
I have used all of these techniques in various situations over my twenty year tenure in Corporate America. All were successful. One actually got public recognition, a statement of thanks from previous victims, with the hope that if he stopped abusing me, he would stop abusing others. He never spoke disrespectfully to me again.
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P.S. A shout out to my friend, Maureen Kuntz, for giving me the idea for this post.