Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 5;   February 3, 2010: Confronting the Workplace Bully: I

Confronting the Workplace Bully: I

by

When a bully targets you, you have three options: accept the abuse; avoid the bully or escape; and confront or fight back. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
The U.S. Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Connecticut

The U.S. Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Connecticut, where Leona Helmsley, also known as "The Queen of Mean," served for 18 months on several charges related to tax fraud. A notorious workplace bully, stories of her abusive exploits abound. Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz tells one story, retold in Stacy Conradt's Mental Floss blog post, "6 Tyrannical Bosses Far Worse Than Yours": "Lawyer Alan Dershowitz said he once had breakfast with Leona at one of the Helmsley hotels and the waiter brought him a cup of tea with a tiny bit of water spilled on the saucer. Alan says Leona grabbed the cup from him and smashed it on the floor, then demanded that the waiter get down on his hands and knees and beg for his job." Helmsley's bullying ways were never considered grounds for criminal charges, but it's certainly possible that they contributed to the public's motivation and acceptance of the legal action against her. We can all hope that someday behavior like this will be widely regarded as criminal, and people engaging in such acts will be subject to criminal prosecution. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

It's easy to find studies of workplace bullies — classifying them, measuring their prevalence, describing their tactics, and estimating their cost to employers. It's more difficult to learn how to cope with bullies. So let's look at that: you're targeted. Now what?

Some recommend reasoning with bullies, using approaches similar to those used for ordinary conflict. I don't advise this. Bullying is not about ordinary conflict between two people. Bullying is abuse. Bullying is the exercise of power to inflict pain and suffering. Bullies do not adjust their behavior on the basis of negotiation.

The two most effective strategies for dealing with a bully who has targeted you are Fight and Flight. In the Fight strategy, you engage with or confront the bully, possibly with the assistance of higher authority. In the Flight strategy, you avoid the bully, or leave the organization. If you can't adopt either of these strategies, Misery is your fate, until the bully chooses another target. Since misery is unacceptable, let's look more closely at Fight first. We'll examine Flight in future issues.

Here are three tips for preparing to confront workplace bullies successfully.

Know your capabilities
Bullies are experts at finding targets who won't fight back. If you've been targeted, the bully probably believes that you either can't or won't fight back.
If you're unsure about prevailing in a confrontation, don't attempt confrontation; learn how to confront first. You'll probably need help. Find a coach or adviser, or seek intervention by a higher authority. Probe your network for any information about the bully that will help you in confronting the bully. Take care though: most officials at work believe they owe their first loyalty to your employer. Their loyalty to you is usually second.
Know what you're willing to do
If the bully believes that you're unwilling to fight back, and if you really are unwilling to fight back, deal with that reluctance first. If you choose to confront the bully, and the suite of tactics acceptable to you is limited, you can be certain that the bully will act so as to test your limits.
Successful confrontation with a bully might require some relaxation of your constraints. Either learn to relax those constraints, or learn to avoid triggering them. Once the confrontation begins, the bully will surely test your constraints.
Know the law
With regard If the bully believes that
you're unwilling to fight
back, and if you really are
unwilling to fight back,
deal with that
reluctance first
to bullies, legal protections in most jurisdictions are usually limited to physical acts — assaults and battery — though some jurisdictions do also provide protection from harassment. If you fight back with legal action against either the bully or your employer, you'll need willing witnesses and evidence.
Witnesses can be difficult to find, because testifying often entails risk of losing one's job. Recordings (video or audio) are helpful if you can create them in a manner that makes them admissible as evidence.

In Part II, we'll examine strategies directly related to actual confrontation. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Confronting the Workplace Bully: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesAre you being targeted by a workplace bully? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just USD 9.99. Order Now!

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Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

A straw-bale houseResponding to Threats: I
Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (Democrat of Wisconsin)Confronting the Workplace Bully: II
When bullied, one option is to fight back, but many don't, because they fear the consequences. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
An Africanized honeybee, also known as a killer beeRapid-Fire Attacks
Someone asks you a question. Within seconds of starting to reply, you're hit with another question, or a rejection of your reply. Abusively. The pattern repeats. And repeats again. And again. You're being attacked. What can you do?
Palm trees blowing in a hurricaneDealing with Rapid-Fire Attacks
When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
Bull Elk Antler Sparring for Dominance in their herdOvertalking: I
Overtalking is the practice of using one's own talking to prevent others from talking. It can lead to hurt feelings and toxic conflict. Why does it happen and what can we do about it?

See also Workplace Bullying and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Perito Moreno Glacier in ArgentinaComing May 24: Unresponsive Suppliers: II
When a project depends on external suppliers for some tasks and materials, supplier performance can affect our ability to meet deadlines. How can communication help us get what we need from unresponsive suppliers? Available here and by RSS on May 24.
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When suppliers have a customer orientation, we can usually depend on them. But government suppliers are a special case. Available here and by RSS on May 31.

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