The Bully in the Workplace
“The key successful leadership lies not in the management of others, but rather the ability to listen, understand, and manage your response to their needs” - P.K. Glass
The question that several readers have inquired about, is how to deal with the BULLY in the workplace. One reader described their situation as follows. (Please note that the question refers to a bully with a male pronoun, so my response follows with the male pronoun. Bullies can be encountered in either gender.)
Bullied Reader: I have been angry about the treatment I get from one of the managers I have to deal with daily. He is not only condescending to me but everyone around him. Why does he remain employed, and in the position he is in? Because he has been able to get the top executive’s listening ear. He distorts information and places the blame for all the problems on others. I find out the damage he has done to me, and others, only after questioning management colleagues (who are equally upset) about the reversal of decisions I thought we agreed upon. I am also surprised about the “threats” this person makes about my competence and ability to do MY job sufficiently enough to keep my management position. What do I do? I like the company and all the other managers. I do a very good job, yet constantly fear losing my position, or my job. I feel my job is ruining my life, I am miserable at work and I am always feeling like I must be ON GUARD for the next attack on me.
Dear Bullied Reader:
Often bullies are insecure and need to reduce the attention that is paid to more competent managers. They attempt to destroy the other manager’s reputation, by demeaning their character and reputation, controlling them, or limiting their access to critical information, and essential top level executives.
Other Characteristics that portray a bully might include:
- He constantly tests people to see how weak they are. (He watches to see who will stand up for themselves)
- He will give you some of his responsibilities demanding the credit if things work out well, and blame you if things do not work.
- You will constantly hear him praise all the he does and minimize the contributions of others.
- He usually will express excessive confidence and will attack anyone who does not seem to agree.
- He will always want his way. He will fight until he gets it. He will pout and complain if he doesn’t.
- He will not hide his opinion. He will be judgmental, and stab others in the back.
- He will often exhibit very aggressive speech patterns (raising his voice or speaking over others).
- He will exhibit aggressive body language (showing his fist, banging on the table, breathing heavily while starring at you with squinted eyes).
Deciding What You Should Do:
Determining the extent to which this bully is really a threat to you, is an essential first step. Does he really pose a threat to your job, or are you just very angry with this person’s mode of operating. Is he really as close to top management as he would like you to believe (they are frequently very convincing but untruthful)? If he has no direct control over your job, you may want to assess the risks of starting the war with this person. He will not play fair.
Approach Others for Their Feedback:
Asking others about their perceptions of this person could provide valuable information regarding the amount of support he has, the amount of fear others have of him (which may affect their willingness to be supportive of you), or cause you to see another side of the person you have not seen.
When the Bully is a Direct Threat:
If it is clear that this bully will have a direct and potentially damaging affect on your reputation or your career, you must fight. Not to find an appropriate way to fight will only perpetuate the problems for you and others. Trying to understanding what psychological factors make this person do what he does will be of little help. You will not change this person. You can only manage your responses to his behavior, which may cause him to alter some of his destructive behaviors.
Do You Have High Level Contacts You Can Talk to About the Bully?
If you have top management personnel who are approachable, use them. First explain the situation in terms of specific examples and behaviors, not general frustrations and complaints. Ask for their advice. Do not assume they do not know about this person or what this person has been doing. Listen carefully to the feedback you get. It may be supportive of the bully’s style of managing. (Bullies can get things done by being intimidating and threatening, although it is only temporary. The lack of collaboration will cause the loss of good personnel and ultimately reduce the productivity.) When upper management understands and evidences support for you, they may suggest some things to try. These must be done before you fight the bully in any other way.
When All Else Fails
When the stakes are high enough and diplomatic means do not work (they seldom do with bullies), you must decide whether you have the commitment to carry on what may be a very long battle. Know yourself and how well you handle stress. (Bullies don’t give up, they fight to win, no matter what they have to do!). Will you have to go it alone, others may be too fearful to side with you and may side with the bully so he will not be as likely to attack them (even if they can’t stand him). If you can’t tolerate the fight you may have to look for employment elsewhere).
When You Feel You Are Ready To Take On The Bully
- Never take anything a bully says or does at face value. You need to understand his thinking. What is really behind what he is saying or doing? Beware of his turning on the charm with you.
- Never give the bully the benefit of the doubt. Be outwardly calm and inwardly alert.
- Don’t give in to subtle jokes that put you down. Ask him what he means by that joke. Tell him it was offensive and you don’t want him to joke about you or what you have done. (He will protest that at you are just too sensitive and can’t take a joke. He will say he didn’t mean anything negative. (When he actually did.)
- Confront aggressive mannerisms in front of others. (He will not like that you point these things out, but it will show him that you will not tolerate it.)
- When something needs to get decided, get support from others before you present anything in front of him.
- When he attacks directly, act amused, totally ignore him, or ask to return to the agenda.
- Remain positive (he won’t) and appreciative of others. (They will recognize the respect you give them).
- Be friendly toward the bully, this communicates to him and others that he is not getting to you, or controlling you.
- Act confused if he attempts to bully you. Then state “I don’t understand what your point is”. Or “I don’t understand what you are trying to say.
- Always respond to him immediately and challenge him up-front.
- Try to meet with him to discuss important items, when others are present. Say what you think and ask what their opinions are first. Don’t let him interrupt!
- When no others are around, do not agree with any thing he says. Say “lets ask ____ what she thinks first. Then make sure it happens! He will go ahead and do what he wants if you don’t take the action to get additional support.
- Put agreements and discussions into writing and e-mail them back to him and others, stating your understanding of what was agreed upon, who was to do what, how you will know it is done (set deadlines if you need this manager’s cooperation, or he will just ignore what he doesn’t want to do, or he will sabotage anything that will give you the credit) and how it will be measured.
- Let superiors know what projects you are doing and what your ideas are or he will steal them.
- Don’t forget that bullies lie, cheat, steal, and do what is necessary for them to manipulate you and others, in order to meet their needs.
- Don’t despair. You can hold your ground if you are willing to fight.
Although there is no definitive approach that is guaranteed to be successful with all bullies, this article will provide you with some suggestions of what is involved in managing your responses to the BULLY in your workplace. Remember: Only You Can Prevent Bullies From Controlling Your Job, Your Reputation and Your Career!
I wish to express my appreciation to the readers sharing their stories and expressing an interest our writing abut this topic. Please send your questions. We will respond to all inquiries. Thank you very much.