Workplace Bullying: Can We Tell a Bully to Stop and Expect Positive Results?

Workplace Bullying: Can We Tell a Bully to Stop and Expect Positive Results?

As a conflict consultant, I am often asked to reason with someone who is abrasive or aggressive. Managers want me to tell the aggressor that they can’t behave the way they are behaving.

I love this request. I always respond: “Have you done this yourself?” Invariably they say “yes”. Then I ask, “Did that work?” and they say “no”.

I wonder why they think that if I deliver the same message it will make a difference. I also wonder why they think that a logical conversation can impact illogical behavior. After all, aggressive bullying type behaviors, racial slurs, discrimination, and verbal aggression are not logical behaviors. We all wonder why and how smart people can behave so badly. “Don’t they know they will suffer consequences?” “Don’t they know that sex harassment coupled with bullying behaviors is still discrimination?” The answer is yes, they know but then there are other factors such as:

  • They don’t realize how their behavior is coming across to others.

  • They really can’t stand the person they are shouting at and don’t care how they come across.

  • They think that yelling and insulting others is good management (“stick management” we call it.)

  • They think they’re entitled to yell at anyone beneath them because they have the authority to behave as they wish.

  • They don’t understand the rules of our country (the foreign national excuse).

  • The don’t care.

  • They can’t control themselves.

If any of these factors are present, then a logical conversation isn’t a reasonable solution. Yet I see the same ineffective advice being posted about how to handle the situation. A recent advice column on handling workplace bullying suggested the following interventions:

Informal Counseling

It is recommended to explain more appropriate ways of behaving and letting the person know that yelling is not acceptable. And, when that fails (as it will)…

Formal Counseling

The aggressor should be told of the company’s anti-bullying policy, given suggestions on appropriate ways to respond to high-pressure situations and informed that such behavior violates company standards and is unacceptable. The manager should keep records of such instances and counseling sessions. I am not sure how this is formal counseling but that’s what is suggested in the article.

Disciplinary Action

this is the next suggestion. Write ‘em up, put ‘em on a plan, maybe demote him or her, send ‘em to classes on professional behavior and be clear that future disciplinary action will happen should the bullying type behavior continue.

Suspension or Termination

When the behavior continues, then enforce the policy and send ‘em on to another company. Maybe they can handle ‘em.

So, What’s Missing Here?

In truth, I work with abrasive and aggressive people and those who are their targets and those who are trying to have better interventions. I know how difficult it is to change these abrasive behaviors. But it can happen, at least for some people. Here are two things to look for.

  1. Abrasive people are not aware of how they are perceived by others. They really don’t understand how aggressive and intimidating they are. They are perplexed by complaints.

  1. They have a willingness to change.

True hard-core bullies can change somewhat but there has to be a reasonable game-plan in place—we need both carrot and stick. I have to be able to help change the behavior by teaching new skills and I have to have some leverage. If a company won’t get rid of a recalcitrant bully no matter what I do, then there’s not much hope of change. Logical conversations about bad behavior are not going to do the trick. Specifically designed interventions can help but the company has to enforce them. It’s a partnership, not passing the buck.

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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.


  • JWager

    Thanks for speaking so clearly on this subject! I appreciate your tell it like it is honesty.