How to Be Strong When Dealing with a Workplace Bully
Workplace bullies don’t pick on powerful people; they pick on people who won’t push back.
Nice, affable men. Kind, honest women.
It doesn’t seem fair, does it? You’re right, it isn’t.
But fair or not, you either have or will encounter in your business dealings, that ONE person, that one toxic person, who doesn’t care about cooperation, who doesn’t have “win-win” in their vocabulary, but whose M.O. is all about control and power.
Control and power over you.
First, a word on the workplace bully. If you have a picture in your mind’s eye of a bully with a bullhorn, red-faced and ranting at co-workers, or even a cartoonish image of a Bluto and Popeye, toss those bully images aside for this discussion.
Your workplace bully might very well be the polished VP in the corner office; he has his designer silk tie impeccably knotted and trendy Italian shoes shined to perfection. He can reduce someone to a scrap of meat with a couple of dismissive words and tries to do just that.
Perhaps your bully is the up and coming young woman whose sights are hungrily set on your job. The higher ups want to propel her forward at lightning speed. You often witness her condescending facial expressions and hear her offhand, snotty comments. Her “slights are out of sight” to most, but you see them well.
Whether young or old, male or female, new or seasoned employee, the workplace bully wants to take advantage of your good nature…at any cost.
And you ARE good-natured. People like to be around you and you interact easily with 95% of those in your path. I’m guessing you successfully live by advice you’ve received like, “You have to go along to get along,” or “You can kill more flies with honey than vinegar.”
You might just be a decent, considerate, “go the extra mile” type of person who will overlook an arrow shot your direction to keep the peace.
Make no mistake. These are wonderful, abiding qualities that make the world a better place. Bravo to you.
That is, until the bully shows up. Or unless you habitually do it at your own expense.
When dealing with someone who has to be in control, ethical and altruistic behavior will be interpreted as weakness and invite exploitation.
The good news is, you can still be nice to people who deserve it and be strong when people don’t deserve your kindness. You can be NICE and STRONG.[i]
We know where a bully is coming from. There are a few critical questions about being a good guy, that I ask you to honestly ask yourself.
You might be being too nice for your own good.
1. Are you a people pleaser?
If so, you are unwittingly making yourself a target for the person who sniffs the air for those they can easily manipulate and control.
What is the profile of a people pleaser? It’s a person who has a difficult time saying no. When something goes awry, they are quick to ask themselves, “Is it something I did?” They frequently give up their own opinions because “it doesn’t really matter anyway,” when really, it does.
If this sounds like you, this approach will take a toll on you.
Pleasers want harmony at any cost, and a workplace bully knows this. It’s only a matter of squeezing the pleaser a little bit and the pleaser will capitulate to avoid the bully’s unpleasant ugliness.
Are you a people pleaser?
2. Does stepping up and “owning it” work against you?
If you are a kind and decent sort of person, you might have the emotional maturity to raise your hand in accountability, and own it when something isn’t working right. You think, “How might I have contributed to this?”
With a workplace bully, that behavior will surely bring on a negative consequence, especially if that is your default behavior.
I reported to Will and Will reported to Susan. Will was the nicest guy you would ever know and he would be the first to say, “I’m sorry, that was probably my fault,” when it generally wasn’t. He never threw his employees, or anyone, under the bus. He took the knocks himself. This endeared him to those of us that worked for him; he was so humble and smart, not to mention, the COO of the company.
But it didn’t endear him to Susan, in fact, quite the opposite. She had sniffed the air and sensed his vulnerability. She pounced on him, again and again, sometimes one-to-one, sometimes in the presence of others. Especially in the presence of others.
Soon, Will opted to leave the company, to preserve his emotional wellbeing and physical health. The stress had become intolerable.
It was an odd thing to observe. It was like Susan didn’t want to let him off the mat. His willingness to take responsibility continually seemed to annoy her and invite more verbal abuse.
It’s impossible to please tyrants. They don’t want to be content, they want to be in control.
Does stepping up and owning it ever work against you?
3. Who are you trying to please and why?
Author Rita Mae Brown said, “The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.”
If you habitually say yes when you want to say no—whether it’s to stay and work overtime (yet one more night) or go to a political event you’d rather not attend, please take a moment to reflect on these questions: [i]
Do I do this because….
- This person has done something for me and I’m doing this in return?
- It’s a way to say thank you?
- It’s my “job” and I’m required to do it?
- I really want to and am doing it willingly?
- It will provide me something that I want and need (money, satisfaction, enjoyment?)
Or do I do it because….
- I don’t want anyone angry with me?
- I’m getting a guilt trip from the person?
- I don’t want the person to cause a scene?
- I want this person to approve of me?
- I don’t have the confidence or courage to say no?
If you said yes to the first set of questions, they are valid, healthy reasons for saying yes.
If you said yes to the second set of questions, you are foregoing your own rights and needs, and the bully won’t respect you anyway.
It’s worth asking,
Why are you trying to please?
Three Ways to Say No When A Workplace Bully Pressures You to Say Yes
The bully looms over you and says, “You need to back me up tonight and stay late on this project. I can’t stay. I have other stuff going on. If Mario were here, he’d do it. I think it’s the least you could do this time around.”
- Take your time with a response
“I will get back to you later today with an answer.” This gives you some space and time to de-energize the bully’s pressure.
- Decide if saying Yes keeps the relationship “equal”
If you say yes this time, will it be “Bully-10, You-3?” The relationship is unbalanced. Saying no keeps the relationship power balance more equitable.
- Keep it short and simple
“No, thank you,” or “Not this time,” works very well. Don’t be drawn into a debate or long-winded explanations as to why not. No means no.
Do “nice guys always finish last?”
It doesn’t have to be that way. If you decide not to be “too nice for your own good” and resist giving in to intimidating tactics, you can be both NICE and STRONG, and take the bully by the horns and prevail.
Note: When I work with mentors and mentees, workplace communication and handling bullies is at the top of the urgent topics of interest list. Several future blogs will deal with this timely and pressing issue, so you can be prepared to stand up, hold your ground, and communicate with confidence!
Lori Bachman is a Certified Tongue Fu® Trainer and works with businesses and individuals to optimize communication success. Based on the cutting-edge principles developed by Sam Horn (Tongue Fu®!, Never Be Bullied Again), these straightforward Tongue Fu strategies and proven techniques examine almost every kind of verbal conflict — from fights with your co-worker, complaints from a customer, bullying by a boss or a stalemate with your kids — and shows how to use martial arts for the mind and mouth to deflect attacks, disarm disputes, and defuse any explosive situation.
[i] Sam Horn, Never Be Bullied Again, Cool Gus Publishing, p. 36
[i] Sam Horn, Never Be Bullied Again, Cool Gus Publishing, p. 39