How to Stop a “Bully” in Six Steps

How to Stop a “Bully” in Six Steps

Should you stand up against workplace bullying behavior?

Whether or not to confront an abrasive or abusive person, be it in the schoolyard, grocery store, workplace, or baseball stadium, is a 64 thousand dollar question. And, if you decide to speak up, how should you do it?

In this article “How to Confront an Office Bully” published by Harvard Business Review in 2010, one executive coach outlines the conditions under which someone did confront a person he thought was bullying another, and why it worked.

Essentially the scenario was: George witnessed his boss (Dan) berating George’s subordinate at an important meeting. George felt that the behavior was inappropriate and harmful to the team and to the company bottom line. Here is a summary of what he did and why it worked:

  1. George quickly assessed the impact of the bullying behavior from an organizational perspective. (That is, he was thinking about the impact on the company rather than responding emotionally.)
  2. He chose the importance to the organization over his own career. He assessed his risks and decided to take action with a timeout. In that moment before he called timeout, he feared that if he handled the situation badly he could lose the respect of his team, even his job. But he told himself, “I may lose my job, and if so I will find something else. This abuse must stop.”
  3. He made a choice to intervene: “I just think there are times when it’s important to do what you can live with and that is more important than the risk or consequences. I realized I would not be able to look in the eyes of the people who worked for me if I didn’t at least say something, whether or not it changed anything.”
  4. He interrupted immediately. The longer bullying goes on, the harder it is to stop.
  5. He addressed the bully personally and in private. Bullies hate public humiliation. (Actually, we all do, but when someone is bullying, you can assume they’re feeling afraid, and powerless. Public humiliation is a sure way to make those feelings worse.)
  6. He appealed to the bully’s self-interest. It was quickly clear that Bob and the rest of the team’s feelings didn’t matter to Dan — but when George framed the issue in terms of personal embarrassment and corporate results, Dan was motivated to change.

Stopping a “Bully” by Highlighting How it Hurts the Organization

In this case, George assessed his risk and made a calculated choice. By framing the problem as something that would impact the organization rather than demonizing or humiliating the aggressor, he improved his chances of success. It is not always advisable to speak up when there is abrasive or abusive behavior happening, however, George did a good job of helping the boss save face while setting limits.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, 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. You can contact me here.