Bullies in the Workplace
When “Jim” accepted a job with an oil services company, he didn’t realize he was putting his career at risk. He’d heard stories that his new boss “Bill” was one tough son of a gun and that those who got on Bill’s wrong side didn’t last long. Jim didn’t worry, he was tough too.
“Anne” didn’t benefit from the same forewarning. When she landed what she thought was a dream job, she quickly bonded with her charismatic boss “Karla.” When Karla liberally poured wine at an informal evening out and said “tell me all about you,” Anne did.
Like many others in the country, Jim and Anne found themselves in a job nightmare. According to an Associated Press alert, 29 percent of all U.S. managers and employees deal with workplace bullies.
A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) white paper reports that “one out of six individuals report being bullied at some time at work during their careers.” According to SHRM’s latest survey, bullying in the workplace is three times as prevalent as illegal discrimination and occurs at least 1,600 times as often as workplace violence. Although no state currently protects employees against workplace bullying, bills before the Massachusetts, Illinois and New York legislatures may change that.
Bullies come in many sizes and types, among them the character assassin, the micro-managing control freak; the silent grenade ready to explode and the opportunistic, manipulative backstabber. Like schoolyard bullies that throw spitballs, workplace bullies generally launch their attack by making unjustified accusations about their target’s character, competency, personality or emotional stability. By creating hearsay they erode others’ respect for and trust in their target. Left unchecked, they undermine their target’s self-confidence and work relationships.
Many initially try to ignore workplace bullies, hoping if they act professionally the bully will leave them alone or act nicely in return. Often, those targeted view the initial bully onslaught as a one-time event. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bullies perceive niceness and avoidance as weakness and an invitation to take advantage. Those who don’t stand up to the bully’s initial attack inadvertently encourage continued bullying.
Most individuals confronting a workplace bully expect to receive support from co-workers or another senior manager. Unfortunately, because many bullies show their true selves only to their target while maintaining a charming front toward others, and because most individuals give the benefit of the doubt to the bully unless they personally experience the attack, bystanders rarely help those slammed by bullies. When those on the sidelines finally realize what’s going on, they may consider the fight not theirs or even run for cover.
Unfortunately, those confronted by a bully often instinctively make exactly the wrong moves, either playing into the bully’s hands or naively coming across as an easy target. These wrong moves include trying to appease the bully; stooping to the bully’s level and thus losing others’ respect; letting the bully isolate you from others and wasting energy by responding to phony issues.
What does it take to stop a bully? You – because bullies lack internal brakes, those who want to stop a bully from steamrollering or trampling over them have to out-maneuver the the bully. When under attack you can’t afford ordinary reactions such as letting the bully push your emotional hot buttons; becoming angry or arguing; pleading, giving in; taking the bully’s words at face value; trying to appease the bully or agreeing under pressure or stooping to the bully’s level. When you react to a bully’s provocative attack, you give the bully the upper hand.
To avoid these nonproductive yet instinctive reactions, take a moment to realize what’s going on and ask yourself “what game is this?” Then, don’t play. For example, if the bully confronts you with “where did you come up with this crap?” respond straightforwardly and non-defensively with “it came from the Harvard Business Review” or whatever source you used.
You can further out-maneuver the bully and avoid non-productive point-counterpoint arguments by countering attacks with questions. For example, if the bully mutters, “you sure screwed this up,” ask “in what way?” If the bully says, “just about every way you could have,” then respond, “as soon as you give me a specific, we can move forward.” By rising above the attacks and offering to deal with real issues, your actions announce “bullying won’t fly with me.”
The good news -- bullying is a two way interaction. You can’t be bullied if you refuse to play the bully’s game by his rules. If you don’t play along, you merely witness a failed attempt to bully you.
Soon after he started his job, Jim correctly assessed that Bill treated well those he considered in his camp. Hoping to move up fast, Jim became Bill’s hatchet man on jobs he chose to delegate and worked seventy hour weeks on projects for which Bill took credit. Within a year Jim had a reputation nearly as negative as Bill’s and yet higher ups in his company viewed Jim as a strong producer who got tough jobs done fast.
When Bill realized Jim might upstage him, he decided to take Jim out. The two men fought relentlessly until Jim decided he’d had it. Unfortunately, the stress trashed Jim’s personal life as well and the resulting divorce so disheartened Jim he stepped off the career escalator he’d hoped to ascend.
Soon after Anne started, she experienced Karla’s dark side. Karla pushed Anne to spy on others in the building. When Anne hesitated, Karla asked Anne if she’d like others knowing some of Anne’s secrets, including the fact she’d danced topless to pay her college tuition. When Anne got caught shifting through papers on a lead manager’s desk, Karla disclaimed all knowledge of the situation and personally fired Anne.
Do you work with a bully? Don’t play the bully’s games.
Quick Link: Confronting Workplace Bullying - Special Report Free Download
Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR and owner of the Alaska-based management consulting firm, The Growth Company Inc. consults with companies and individuals to create real solutions to real workplace challenges. Their services include HR On-call (a-la-carte HR), investigations, mediation, management/employee training, executive coaching, 360/employee reviews and organizational strategy services. You can reach Lynne @ www.thegrowthcompany.com, via her workplace 911/411 blog, www.workplacecoachblog.com or @lynnecurry10 on twitter.