Confronting the Workplace Bully:
by Rick Brenner
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, 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 firstto 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 Top Next Issue
Are you being targeted by a workplace bully? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2010 survey indicated that 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand, and that bullying is about four times more prevalent than all other forms of illegal harassment combined. 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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See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 4: Bottlenecks: Part I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs? Available here and by RSS on February 4
- And on February 11: Bottlenecks: Part II
- When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern. Available here and by RSS on February 11
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
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