8 Tips For Managing Workplace Bullies

Posted on November 12, 2013

Managing Workplace Bullies

Ever feel like giving a colleague a swift kick in the conscience? I have.  I’m not shy about admitting that I have been a bully. If you want to bring out the monster in me, then start by picking on someone with less power than you. It’s like a little light goes off in my head and the mean side of me steps out of the darkness and demonstrates to the bully exactly what it feels like to pick on someone their own size.

Needless to say, I’ve never had much patience for bullies.  When I was a kid I encountered lots of bullies. They were rarely attracted to me, but I ran into them because I’ve never thought bullying was someone else’s problem. As I grow older, not much has changed. Somehow I expected that bullies would make fewer appearances in my life as I grew older, so imagine my surprise when I encountered bullies in the workplace.

I can remember one boss who would yell at the top of his lungs at any and everyone. He would start at one end of our very long one story building and scream as he marched his way down the central hallway to the other end.  He was like some crazed long haired bull.  His face would get redder and redder as the target of his rage became smaller and smaller. It was pretty awful. It was my first real job and as the receptionist I sat in the centre of the building able to watch the whole horrible thing unfold from beginning to end. I was never the subject of his rages (thank goodness) but I do remember thinking I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

When I encountered bullies again it was a herd of them.  Honestly, it was like entering an alternate dimension where bad behavior was acceptable and being considerate and polite was the thin veneer worn for public consumption. Thrown chairs, tossed telephones, fist fights in the office and threats riddled with obscenities delivered across the boardroom table as if the speaker was delivering the time of day, were all part of the weekly antics. It took me a long time before I could get my bearings back and then for the first time in my life I didn’t bully the bullies, I out maneuvered them. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t that hard. You see at heart I think bullies are like badly behaved little kids, or at least that’s been my experience. Your average garden variety bully has gotten away with their behavior largely because no one has called them on it.  Through intimidation and threats they have managed to make their way through life and work with no one stopping them. What the rest of us have to figure out is what do we want to do with them, defuse them, ignore them or avoid them.

Here are some things that have worked for me.

  1. Build your network. Don’t let the bully make you feel isolated. Engage your colleagues; give yourself the opportunity to have fun. I have found that eventually it is the bully who gets left out of activities unless they can behave.
  2. Ignore them. Yup, simply act as if they don’t matter or don’t exist. A non-responsive target isn’t all that interesting to many bullies, a bit like picking on a door.
  3. Avoid them. If you don’t have to engage them, then don’t.  Life is short enough without wasting time on people who don’t know how to behave.
  4. Rephrase. I got into the habit of rephrasing dumb or aggressive requests so that the person delivering them would look foolish confirming the comment or request. “Get me some lunch.” Would get repeated as, “So you want me to postpone the bosses report so that I can get you a sandwich?”
  5. Stay calm. There is nothing quite as disconcerting to a screamer as someone who simply doesn’t rise to the hysteria. By staying calm you also stay in control and demonstrate a level of emotional intelligence that generally shuts down the bully.
  6. Document the bullying. One of my buddies had a terrible bully for a boss.  One afternoon my friend called me close to tears, her boss had sent her a particularly inflammatory email. I told her to forward the email to her boss’ superior with a brief sentence explaining that the tone and language were not acceptable professional behavior. Her boss was fired by the end of the week.
  7. Tell them to stop. Point blank tell them to stop. Tell them you feel bullied or harassed, that their tone, language or manner makes you uncomfortable.
  8. Get out. There are unfortunately situations that can’t be helped and in those situations your best bet is to make a run for it.

Have you ever had to manage a bully? What do you do to deal with bullies?

Quick Reminder: I’m looking for your great communications stories. I’m collecting them in November and posting in December. See my post “Everyone Loves a Good Story” for more details.

Related articles:

Bullying is Theft – Seth’s Blog