Workplace Bullying: Why “Standing Up” Can Backfire with More Bullying

Workplace Bullying: Why “Standing Up” Can Backfire with More Bullying

Do you have a bully in your workplace?

I mean a “Classic Bully”—someone who targets an individual for humiliation, and seems to enjoy it, not someone who is unconsciously abrasive. You know the difference. The Classic Bully doesn’t have a lot of empathy for the target. He or she picks a new target as soon as his favorite target has moved on. The abrasive person is shocked when told they are difficult. They really are. They are easily trained and are quite afraid of conflict.

Classic Bullies are very hurtful and it is generally recommended that you “stand up” for yourself.

This is a bad idea.

Here’s why:

Classic bullies pick a target (that’s why we call people victimized by bullies targets) and carry on with abandon. They enjoy what they’re doing. They are out to hurt the target. They want you to be intimidated and feel threatened and be compliant. That’s why the recommendation to stand up for yourself makes sense. But, it doesn’t really make sense.

If you stand up for yourself you will encourage the bully to behave more aggressively. He or she will use your words and your boldness to their advantage. You will be made fun of. You will be humiliated. You may be written up for insubordination. Likely the bully will make a report about you to Human Resources and you will be perceived as the troublemaker.

What can you do when you interact with someone who’s being a classic bully?

Be Curious

You can ask him or her why they are behaving as they are. Be specific: “Hey, Jim, I notice that you seem to be angry with me today. What’s going on?” “Hey, Jim, we discussed the project and I seem to recall that we agreed on a deadline of March 1. Now I understand you want the project on February 10. What happened?

Avoid Accusations

Accusations might include: “Hey, Jim, you’re angry with me today. What’s the matter with you? I’m sick of your raging at me.” Or, Hey, Jim, who do you think you are changing the deadline on that report? Why are you always doing that?” Accusations will only intensify the counter-attacks on you, the target.

Avoid Labels

Don’t call this person a bully. Don’t refer to him or her as a bully when you go to another boss or to HR or to the president. No one likes labels because it limits options. If you tell others your boss is a bully they will assume you have another motive for your complaints. Really, they will.

Be Neutral

If you do make a complaint, just describe the behavior and don’t label it. This gives folks a chance to draw their own conclusions. You will be glad you did.

Know Your Rights

Does your company have a policy against bullying or aggressive behavior? If so, then document the incidents for HR.

Make Your Exit Strategy

It’s tough to work with a classic bully. It makes you sick and unproductive and the hit on your confidence is profound. So, before you sink too low, plan your escape.

Improve Yourself

You can have a somewhat easier time if you manage your behavior, thoughts and strategies with a bully in your midst. This isn’t capitulating – it’s smart.

Are you looking for other ways to handle conflict and bullying behavior in your workplace? You are not alone, and many others feel exactly the same way you do.

For more tips on workplace conflict and bullying behaviors, exclusive content, and detailed reports, sign up for my free report on “Costs of Conflict.”

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. You can contact me here.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, Conflict Consultant.