Waging a Five Step Strategic Counter-Offensive to Workplace Bullying

When I am at a meeting and ask, ‘Who in the room has been bullied at work?’ 50% raise hands; adding, ‘Who know someone who has been bullied?’ it’s 100%. Bullies use threats, intimidation, and humiliation to control their targets. Targets of bullying become sick, lose confidence, and forfeit their career to escape. 

Bullies are rewarded with the personal satisfaction of hurting others.  But sometimes there is more to bullying than hurt. Sometimes bullying has a huge reward attached to it. Sometimes bullying is about taking over someone’s career. This is ‘Strategic Bullying.’ 

‘Strategic Bullying’ is using bullying with the intention of taking over another person’s career. * This bullying has economic and career rewards for the bully. 

The story: The target of the bullying is a woman research scientist with an amazing career spanning over twenty years. The department Chair brings in a scientist with a reputation for bullying and seems to either empower the bully or willingly ignores the bully behavior including: 

  • Gossiping and spreading harmful rumors about career, productivity, and effectiveness   Confronting, threatening, humiliating and intimidating her to undermine her self-confidence with exaggeration and misrepresentations of her behavior 
  • On-going Chaos through misinformation, accusations and public verbal assaults to interfere with all relationships, work, and opportunities   
  • Isolating the scientist from her peers by making her workplace shameful   
  • Withholding Critical Information to derail productivity and reinforce the rumors about her competence 

 And the Strategic Bullying reward: 

  • A career take-over including grants, research relationships, students, and her research niche including her major strategic partners, endowed chair, and two major committee appointments as well as her major community partners and research proposals.    

The scientist in this case didn’t identify the behavior as bullying because the actions were both covert and strategic. It seemed she had just lost her skills, team, and relationships without understanding how the bully’s behavior lead to these losses. The bully was good at bullying, strategic in his efforts to blame her and isolate her and helped her to blame herself for all that had happened. She became sick, was unable to focus, and her work suffered terribly.  All these reactions gave more power and impetus to the bully and made everything worse. She hired a professional coach to help her unravel the problems and work on solutions. 

Here are Five Strategic Counter-Offensive steps designed to limit the impact of the bullying and go beyond the usual advice for targets 

Stay Calm:

Staying calm helps maintain confidence and plan responses. If you whine, complain, or crumble, then you have given the bully what he/she wants AND you’re likely to alienate your supporters. It’s risky to help a victim; people want to align with a winner. 

Show Up:

Bullies expect you be shamed into disappearing. But, in the end it doesn’t make things better so keep working, go to all meetings, and keep your office door open. 

Challenge Gossip:

The more the bully gossips about you, the more you will be tempted to be nicer and more compliant. Being curious and attentive to what is being said can help stop the behavior. So it is up to you to stop what is happening by asserting your power and challenging the gossip. Label the behavior you’re experiencing as bullying, or at least as aggressive, behavior that is designed to hurt. Ask your team to isolate the bully and not participate in the undermining behavior. 

Repair relationships inside your department/office:

Apologize to your colleagues for any transgressions (absences, withdrawing, missed deadlines, etc.) and re-commit to your work. Then prove yourself to them by sticking with it. 

Repair relationships outside your department/office:

Bullying is far-reaching. Dozens of relationships with administrators, colleagues, and friends are damaged by the bully’s gossip and each of these has to be repaired. 

These suggestions are about taking back power, playing office politics and using relationships wisely.  The scientist in this case is exercising all these measures and more and making headway to save her career. She may have lost some battles but it looks like she will win the war. She is being assertive, clear, strong, curious, and present.  Bullies expect you to buckle, shrink, submit, and then disappear. In the end bullies are afraid and often incompetent. Waging a Strategic Counter-Offensive is exactly what bullies don’t expect.  Stick with your plan as it takes time, patience, and attention to stop bullies.

*Strategic Bullying and Strategic Counter Offensive  are concepts I have created, named and claim. It is a part of Confidence Connections Coaching and Consulting.