Go Pick on Someone Your Own Size, How to Deal with Bullies in the Workplace

There was one in every high school. You remember him or her. They strut around like they own the place, often with a handful of lieutenants following them. They extort lunch money from little kids, pick fights with the weak, make fun of the kids who aren’t quite as smart as others (or the scary smart ones with glasses – the ones who are now running the world), brag about their conquests, and sneer at the kids who follow the rules and do their homework. There is a cartoon-sized bully in every coming of age movie ever made.

We remember them with nostalgia. Most of them have disappeared.

I remember one named Tommy. He had a single eyebrow that stretched across his entire forehead. Hair everywhere! He was almost simian. Tommy didn’t do very well in life and I now remember him more with sadness than fear or anger. But many bullies don’t disappear. They don’t melt into obscurity. They simply hone their skills and carry them into adulthood. Recently, there has been much written about how to handle bullies in the schoolyard. Some states now have laws to protect kids who get bullied. This is a good thing. But, little has been written about what to do when the bully is your teacher or your boss. The bullies who survive can be very dangerous because they are the ones with the high IQ’s. Bullying is no laughing matter.

One definition is, “Bullying is an act of repeated aggressive behavior in order to intentionally hurt another person, physically or mentally. Bullying is characterized by an individual behaving in a certain way to gain power over another person.”

One of the features of bullying is that there is always an imbalance of power

Bullies exploit weakness: physical limitations, medical conditions, mental or emotional problems, lower social status, disabilities, etc. Bullies often have their own psychological problems. Many are narcissists or psychopaths. Some are depressed. Some have low self-esteem, addiction problems, anger issues, or a host of other personality disorders. They are almost always cowards. The aggressive behaviors are typically a way of compensating for their own inadequacies and mediocrity.

Being bullied is often very confusing for the target because there often seems so little justification for it. Healthy people see justice, even if not always achievable, as a worthy goal. Not so for the bully. All he or she sees is weakness and opportunity. The target of the bully will often think, “What did I do to deserve this?” The answer is nothing. Bullies are predators and choose their targets based only on their assessment of the person’s ability (or willingness) to “hit back.”

workplace bullying target leadershipIn the workplace bullying often consists of repeated, groundless criticism, withholding of good assignments, disparaging remarks, public embarrassment, intimidating memos/emails, taunting, teasing, poor recommendations and so forth. The target is put into a position in which it becomes difficult to leave because their reputation has been tarnished. This is convenient for the bully who gets to continue dominating the target. The higher the IQ of the bully, the more subtle and treacherous the bullying becomes.

Many become quite skilled at appearing benign. They will declare that they are making the “tough” decisions, protecting the “integrity” of the program, confronting “poor performance,” and the like. They are often good at creating a defensible paper trail and, when needed, fabricating evidence to support their behavior. They are good at knowing how to abuse their power without crossing the line into overtly illegal or actionable behaviors.

It is unfortunate that many of our institutions are set up in a way that protects bullies. Many of their attributes are associated with strength and leadership even though a more thorough analysis would expose the ugly truth we often are in too big a hurry to see. We sometimes accept bullying as the prerogative of those in power. But just because we accept it doesn’t mean bullying has no impact on our organizations. Quite the opposite! When bullies are in positions of power, all of the defense mechanisms that we see in dysfunctional organizations become prevalent. People withhold information, redirect their energy and creativity away from the organization’s goals and toward protecting themselves and avoiding punishment. Teamwork goes down the drain. People sabotage each other to avoid being the next target. The performance of the organization diminishes. They start to lose promising contracts. Costs start to go up. There will be an increase in grievances, absenteeism, stress related illness, quality problems, vendor issues and so forth.

Bullying often leads to suicide, especially when the target sees no way to put a stop to it. The clever bully, however, always finds a way to shift blame. It is always the fault of the employees, the government, the vendors, picky customers, etc. Bullying persists because bystanders tend to ignore it. Just like the Edmund Burke quote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” people around the bully look the other way. Not surprising since they fear becoming the next target and with good reason.

“The number one mistake people make is to not recognize the serial bully as a sociopath or disordered personality. Naivety is the greatest enemy – most people can’t or won’t believe that the person they’re tackling is a serial bully, and consequently expect the bully to recognize their wrongdoing and make amends. Serial bullies cannot and will not – but they will ruthlessly exploit other people’s naivety to ensure their own survival. Never underestimate the serial bully’s deviousness, ruthlessness, cunning, and ability to deceive – and their vindictiveness.”

The bully’s motives are often grounded in their need to dominate others

That means that if the other doesn’t submit, their goal is blocked. These things do not, however, play out like they do in the movies. You know – the ones where the “nerdy” kids stand up to the bully, the bully and his or her lieutenants slink away in shame and everyone cheers. In real life, bullies are petty and vindictive and very persistent. Standing up to a bully is risky. It takes a lot of work, a lot of energy, and a lot of time. Most importantly, it takes teamwork. Seldom can you do it alone, especially if the bully is your boss. Standing up to a bully can get you fired. It is important to avoid being naïve. If you decide to make a stand there are a number of things that you should do.

• Make sure that you stick with the facts. Don’t lose your temper, call names, swear, etc.

• Be consistent and persistent. Confront simply, factually, and often when the bully’s behavior interferes with your needs.

• Keep a paper trail. Most of us don’t do this. We assume the best in others and often find out too late that our memories are unreliable and our integrity gets challenged.

• Use your institution’s resources. Go to HR, management, legal, and so forth.

• Solicit support from your colleagues, other managers with whom you have a good relationship and so on.

• Have a “Plan B.” You may lose. Be prepared. Most people who try to fight bullies end up working somewhere else.

• Take care of yourself. Stay healthy. Exercise. Eat right. Spend time with your friends. Go to counseling if needed.

I have facilitated hundreds of leadership training workshops in which we learn how to confront unacceptable behavior with clear I-Messages. It never fails that a participant (or two or three) will describe a situation similar to the kinds of things that I have discussed above. They ask, “Will this skill work with this person?” The short answer is “no.” The listening, confronting, and problem solving skills taught in leadership workshops are designed to be effective with normal, healthy individuals. The vast majority of people we deal with fall into that category. I will sometimes ask, “How many of you believe in evil? Not in a metaphysical sense but that there are some evil dudes out there” Everyone raises his or her hand. Fortunately, there are not very many of them out there. Just enough to make us skeptical of ideas like good teamwork, fairness, win/win conflict resolution and so on. While these skills play a major role in moving an organization forward, they are not designed to deal with malevolence.

With a lot of hard work, it is possible to create an organization in which bullies don’t fit in. An organization that is truly founded on the great ideas will not be fertile ground for intimidation and retribution. The bullies will leave.


Learn more about L.E.T.