You went to work for this company and you were so excited.
Just days later, it started. The bully at work started showing her colors, defining her territory and stomping the ground! Help!
I thought it was going to be so good. What do I do?
We expect bullies on a school playground or to hear about it as part of gang behavior, prison even. Unfortunately, it is an all too common complaint in the workplace.
When I am hired by a company, the task often entails managing the bully, the hostile, aggressive person who is running as rampant as a rhino. Recently, I met one who introduced herself to me in the initial interview as “a harsh personality who can be hard on people.” My ears perked up and my jaw likely dropped open at that moment. No, not from the self-knowledge this woman displayed, but rather from the admission of her awareness and her complete lack of interest in doing anything to improve her approach. She was proud of her bully status!
Like people so often do, it seemed she thought that announcing that she was a bully was a way of giving herself permission to act like one. If you walk around thinking of yourself as a harsh personality, you’re very likely to demonstrate it on a regular basis. And, she did.
This woman—let’s call her Leslie—had a few traits you might recognize. The first day I was in the company she stalked up to my desk (me being the general manager), maintaining eye contact all the way, and demanded:
“What are you going to do about re-configuring the office?”
When I responded that it was under consideration and would be happening soon but not that day, she asked once again. Receiving the same answer, she rolled her eyes and walked away. Over a few weeks of seeing Leslie roll her eyes, dismiss people with a wave of her hand, hear her backbiting sarcasm and know-it-all responses, and watching her hostile, aggressive behavior and its effect on the office, there was no possibility that the behavior could go unchecked. It was toxic to the productivity and health of everyone as well as to the profitability of the company.
Of course, there was a problem. Nothing could be as simple as simply firing Leslie. The owner of the company did not want to fire her because she believed she brought a unique combination of experience and expertise to the company. A classic dilemma in small companies! It is all too frequent that a person with no regard for either co-workers or the company holds too much information and the boss thinks of them as indispensable. And, all the while, that person is holding everyone else hostage. Big mistake!
People would take a sick day when they had had enough of her overbearing nastiness. There is only so much folks can take. Productivity suffered. Clients were lost. The costs of keeping such an individual employed are too high. And, it was compounded. When a person takes a sick day to get away from a Leslie, who does their work? Of course, everyone else is supposed to pick up the slack. But, no. Of course, that would not be Leslie. She simply refused to have her workload enlarged for any reason.
Listening to her with customers, it was not a surprise to learn that, what the owner thought of as her hard-nosed negotiating, was simply bullying. There is a difference.
Although we often think of bullies as big people dominating smaller folks, they are truly little people in every way!
A bully at work is habitually cruel to others he deems to be weaker than himself. He uses browbeating language and behavior.
Here's some insights into what is going on with bullies:
- Their fear of being wrong is demonstrated by being know-it-alls. They are often condescending, patronizing or dismissive.
- Their fear of not being able to meet the needs of others causes them to never want to hear what others think, feel or want.
- Their inability and unwillingness to control their anger or their tongue causes them to make everything your fault as it could not possibly be theirs.
- Paradoxically, their self-esteem is too fragile to handle the possibility of being wrong.
- Their need to control you demonstrates their fear of being unable to control themselves.
- Their desire for power over others comes from the fear of being insignificant.
- Their attempt to boost their own flailing self-esteem is fed by treating others disrespectfully, thoughtlessly and off-handedly.
- Their fear of others causes them to assault character, focus on weaknesses and be the poster children for intimidation.
Unfortunately, these are all manifestations of a poor self-image coupled with lack of self-awareness and people skills.
So, what to do about Leslie?
A good beginning when handling a bully is to begin with compassion. The last thing you may be considering is a compassionate approach. You truly want to beat him or her over the head with a blunt object and considerable force! Beginning with an understanding of the inherent weakness the bully is projecting and its likely causes will help you manage.
Bullies need to be managed because they cannot manage themselves, yet, everyone shies away from doing so. They are like errant teenagers allowed to run wild. No one wants to say no to them because of the consequences. That’s the operating system of the bully: don’t cross me or I will make your life miserable. They are miserable and they want to take everyone down with them.
Bullies appear self-confident, strong and impervious because they intimidate weaker people. They may even be so blind in their arrogance that they try to intimidate anyone as Leslie did with me. (That was not a wise move, Leslie.) If you vacillate, placate or submit to a bully or respond with fear or rage, she feels her point is proven: you are inferior and deserve to be abused, taken down or written off.
You have three choices when working with a bully: quit, get sick or manage yourself with the bully…unless you own the company! Here are some tips:
- Redeem your self-esteem and establish strong boundaries. That is the only way to gain the respect of a bully.
- Be friendly, self-confident and calm. Never cower!
- Avoid a clash of wills. Keep things at the information, not the emotional, level.
- Listen well. Agree with him or her…in part…and put forward your views clearly.
- Be strong, firm, courteous and assertive.
- Endeavor to get the bully to consider alternative views while avoiding directly challenging him or her.
- Be well-prepared before you talk with a bully. Know your desired outcome of the conversation and stay focused.
- Be willing to acknowledge when s/he is right. A bully respects your ability to see his/her strengths.
Anger, threats, harassment, humiliation and ridicule are the tools of the workplace bully, just as they are on the playground. Leslie majored in all four. Her delight was in her ability to intimidate. Her joy was in having those around her dread the possibility she would erupt. She felt powerful and, unfortunately, no one was contradicting her...until I came along.
If you have a Leslie on your team, be assertive. If you need to shore up your conflict and anger management skills, do so. The workplace is no place for a bully. The cost is too high.
If you are facing a bully at work, or anywhere in your life, consider booking a 1-hour introductory appointment to discuss it, and get some good next steps.