Taking notes on the slide Warren was displaying, Maria felt a looming presence to her right. She turned, and found herself nose-to-nose with Norton, who was gazing intently at her notepad, reading greedily. Recoiling, she rolled her chair back, and turned the page on her pad to cover it. She said to Norton, "May I help you?" With that, everyone around the conference table turned to look at her.
Unless the toucher
and touched are
intimidatingNorton replied, "Sheesh, don't be so sensitive! I couldn't make out Southwest revenue, that's all. 2.5 or 2.8?"
"2.5," she said, certain that he had been brazenly reading her notes. She wondered why, but didn't want to accuse him, certainly not in public. So she turned her back to him, and rolling her chair forward a foot, tuned back in to Warren's presentation.
Maybe Norton really couldn't read the slide, but perhaps he's an Intimidator, engaging in a form of boundary violation, a favorite tactic of intimidators. Personal space boundary violations, such as the one Maria just experienced, are among the most obvious in the workplace. And among these, perhaps the most upsetting involve touching.
Even in the workplace, touching can be a welcome symbol of friendship. But unless the toucher and the touched are close friends, being touched is often intimidating. Intended or not, intimidation is especially likely when:
- The toucher is male and the touched female, or
- The toucher has relatively more organizational power, or
- The toucher is standing and the touched is seated, or
- The toucher is physically larger.
Failing to respond to intimidating touching increases the likelihood of repetition. Even so, responding can be difficult, because it often occurs in public settings, where most of us are reluctant to confront a toucher. What works and what doesn't?
- Once you're a target, you're a target
- The Intimidator will find you. Avoiding him or her probably won't work.
- Don't rely on witnesses
- Most witnesses probably won't have noticed anything inappropriate. Intimidators often fly under the radar.
- Retreat — don't retaliate
- If the Intimidator puts a hand on you, step away, turning as necessary to break contact. Avoid retaliatory touching — it can escalate dangerously.
- If power is involved, get help
- If there is an organizational power differential between you (either way), get help from Human Resources. When you ask for help, have a log of incidents — dates, times, and places.
- Confront in a safe setting
- If you elect to confront, choose a setting in which you feel safe. At a minimum, safety should include guaranteed egress. Tell the toucher directly that the touching must end. Don't threaten, but project earnest seriousness.
Recognize that what drives intimidators is fear. If you can marshal the courage to respond, you'll be delighted with the outcome, and, most likely, you'll wonder why you didn't act sooner. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- The Costs of Threats
- Threatening as a way of influencing others might work in the short term. But a pattern of using threats
to gain compliance has long-term effects that can undermine your own efforts, corrode your relationships,
and create an atmosphere of fear.
- Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: I
- Bullying is unlike other forms of toxic conflict. That's why the tools we use to address toxic conflict
simply do not work for bullying. In this Part I, we contrast bullying and ordinary toxic conflict.
- When the Chair Is a Bully: III
- When the Chair of the meeting is so dominant that attendees withhold comments or slant contributions
to please the Chair, meeting output is at risk of corruption. Because Chairs usually can retaliate against
attendees who aren't "cooperative," this problem is difficult to address. Here's Part III
of our exploration of the problem of bully chairs.
- See No Bully, Hear No Bully
- Supervisors of bullies sometimes are unaware of bullying activity in their organizations. Here's a collection
of indicators for supervisors who suspect bullying but who haven't witnessed it directly.
- The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
- Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both
enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps
to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
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