Confronting a Malicious Bully: The Wrong Way and Right Way to Tell the Truth
Is it good advice to have your “chapter and verse” (that is all your evidence, incidences, and consequences) prepared so that you can confront a bully about his or her behavior?
No! Probably not.
Though documentation is important when bringing up behavior to management, if you are confronting the bully yourself, there is a much more effective way to do it than dumping all the issues into a single conversation. All this does is create defensiveness and gives the bully a chance to defend him or her self instance by instance.
Your goal is to discuss the pattern of behavior not the incidences. And your goals should be to do this while avoiding the “fight triggers” of defensiveness and judgement.
Want to succeed? Here’s an example of what NOT to do:
A small religious congregation built on themes of social justice, love, safety, and community has a new member (well about nine months). This member has a growing chip on his shoulder—he’s decided that the congregation is not doing what he thinks is important. He says they’re not aggressive enough. They’re too tolerant of differences. They’re weak. And he says it is important is to FIGHT about social justice. He loves confrontation, condemnation, and criticism. He loves to judge. He thinks he knows best and he likes to stir up the gatherings with his rages. He’s using the pulpit (literally) as his bully platform. People are going hurt, confused and frustrated and many are walking away. Not good for the church. Not good for community.
The Wrong Way: Confront Joe with his Bad Behavior by Each Line Item
A group got together and created a document with every transgression, abusive comment, attack, and outrageous thing this man has said and done. Once gathered they wish to deliver it to him in the hopes that he will either leave, or stop. Fortunately they contacted me before delivering their document. My advice:
Don’t do It
Nice idea, I said, but it’s based on assuming that this man is reasonable and will realize that he should move on or be so ashamed of his behavior that he will change his ways. But classic bullies to not respond to this kind of prompting. Abrasive people generally get the message but those who use bullying as a way to win arguments, intimidate others and manipulate situations don’t care about their behavior. They care about winning. They see others as weak and unfocused. They seem themselves as heroes, leaders, stronger and smarter than the rest of us.
The real result will be that Joe will have many many points to argue about and then to argue his points over and over again. He will focus on all of his opinions and defend them. He will digress into his point of view on different topics and then he will attack the character of the individuals for not agreeing with him. He will talk about how he is more righteous and better than them. He will defend himself ad nauseum and miss the point which was buried in all the content. And that point is – it is time for Joe to move on.
Even if they explicitly ask Joe to leave the group, if they present his transgressions, he will focus on how his positions are correct and their actions are incorrect. He will spend his time trying to convince them that what he says and demands is what they should do. Sound familiar? Perhaps because this is what we tend to do when we are afraid of revealing our real point. We keep hoping (I call it hopium) that the person will figure out that things aren’t working.
The Right Way: How to Talk About Unacceptable Behavior
When you need to talk with someone about their behavior, you need to talk to them about the one point bottom line, which is that there is a bad match between the bully’s behavior and the culture of the group. It’s hard to argue against this point. It’s quite right. He wants the group to be different. They’re comfortable with how they are implementing their values. He’s not satisfied. The group isn’t satisfied with how he is imposing his point of view on the group. Time to move on.
Remember: If you bring your list of transgressions (the stuff they did that’s bullying or abusive or whatever), then you’re going to have a big fat fight about what’s true and right about the transgressions and not about what needs to happen.
How to Invite Joe to Leave—the ONE POINT Approach
Instead of presenting a list of Joe’s misdeeds I proposed the following to be delivered when Joe is a bit calmer than he his in church.
“Joe, our church is premised on love and kindness and acceptance. This is a safe place for people to be who they are without fear of confrontation. We don’t fight or cajole or try to convince people to agree with us. We’re an eclectic community of people who live and let live. It seems you like to argue and fight. You enjoy a lively debate and you wish folks to accept your point of view. Well, that is fine but not here. We don’t operate that way. So, since we cannot meet your needs, it’s really time for you to find another organization that likes to talk and take action the way you like. Joe, what we are saying is we not a good match for you and, that’s okay. We don’t want to change you but we don’t want to keep fighting with you.”
In this version of conversation we go right to the heart of the matter. The ONE POINT that is most important. The church has a certain culture and it is not aligned with Joe’s approach. Joe’s style doesn’t match the norms, mores, or values of the congregation. Time for Joe to move on.
Notice we’re not saying he is bad or wrong. He’s different. And he’s imposing his difference on the group in a way that’s not working.
I expect he will be angry and give them a hard time. That’s to be expected. Classic bullies really like to fight so that’s going to happen. But, in my scenario the congregants are telling their truth and asking for what is necessary and they’re avoiding arguing about all of Joe’s behavior-making him wrong or bad. He’s not. He’s different. They need to stick to ONE point. Time for Joe to move on. Joe doesn’t have to guess. He’s out. The message is “we do not have a good match here”. And Joe is really OK! In some circles Joe’s behavior is perfectly acceptable—high stake sales, litigation, debate teams. But, it’s not a good match with the congregation. And the congregation has a culture that is set. They have a mission statement and they have a way they have functioned for decades. Joe isn’t a good fit. Period.
If Joe is a troubled soul (and I fear that he may be), I expect the leaders will have other problems with Joe. He has already threatened to hang outside the building harassing the members and guests. If so, then the leaders will have to get a restraining order. That is really too bad but may be unavoidable. It’s less of a problem then the total destruction of the church. What we know is that he will destroy the congregation if allowed to continue so he is going to have to be invited to leave.
In the end, it is important for the leaders to talk with Joe about the congregation norms and mores and that there isn’t a match. Joe isn’t necessarily “wrong” but his style is not a match for the members.
If you have been accused of bullying or been a target of bullying, learn what to do, what to say, and how to handle yourself in a more fruitful and productive way. For more information, click here.
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I’ve been a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts.
I’m Kathleen Bartle, Conflict Consultant.