Twice in my career I have been subjected to bullying at work. My reactions to each event had both similarities and differences. Each event was similar in terms of the characteristics of the bully, but different in terms of the context. This difference in context led to different choices and, therefore, different outcomes.
Before reviewing my actions in each situation and summarising my tips for dealing with bullies in the workplace, let’s first discuss my emotional reaction to the events. I was frightened, enraged, confused and vulnerable in equal measures.
I’m only human. Emotions are part of my make-up and essential to my functioning as a healthy human being. It is absolutely natural to have instinctive reactions to an actual or perceived threat. Taking appropriate action is the secret to dealing with these situations. You want to come out the other side with your dignity and confidence intact, if not a little dented. Pretending the abuse isn’t happening or excusing the bully because “they are under a lot of pressure”, is not the answer.
That’s not to say that you need to confront the bully directly or raise the issue with others in your workplace. Indirect action is potentially all you need to protect your dignity and deliver a blow to the abuser and his/her protectors.
Which leads me onto the specific events I have endured and my subsequent actions. The similarities, as I’ve already stated, lay in the characteristics of the bullies and their actions. They both used similar tactics: ambush, positional power, verbal threats, threatening physical presence and abusive language. They also both held a belief that their view of reality was the only one that mattered.
The key difference in context between the two situations was the level of support I was able to call upon. Secondary factors, shaping the different actions taken, were my priorities and appetite for the challenge.
In the first situation, I had a very supportive line manager and trusted colleagues going through similar issues. I could trust these colleagues to keep confidences. I also had youth and ambition on my side. Having landed a new role, I was determined to see it through to success. This was my job and no-one was going to make me quit!
Over a 12 month period, I gradually began to win this bully over. I worked hard, did my job well and got results for him. I worked hard at building a relationship with him, always being polite and taking a genuine interest in his work and personal life. I found out who was in his inner circle and built relationships with them. I helped them, opening doors and gaining favours for them from my head-office contacts.
After 12 months these tactics paid off and I was accepted as a part of his team. The change in him was significant. At a dinner celebrating a record year for him and his business area, he stood up in front of more than 100 people and apologised for his behaviour. He also praised and thanked me for my contribution to his success.
In the second situation, I had a sympathetic line manager who listened, but was powerless to help. I also couldn’t speak to colleagues. This was a low-trust culture and I couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t share confidences with others. I was also older and less in need of proving myself in this role. Despite the potential for significant financial reward, I decided the best option was to protect my health and self-esteem and leave.
Defeat? I don’t think so. I removed access to my talent and time. This will have had a significant impact on the business in the short term. Ultimately, no-one is irreplaceable, but I’m experienced enough to know how much cost and risk is associated with senior exits. I was also a lot less stressed and happier having made the move and, of course, that’s the most important outcome.
In both circumstances I had important support networks outside of the organisation. However, these can’t replace vital support needed within the organisation, on the battle field, so to speak.
So, what did I learn from these experiences:
During an attack: Stay Calm. (I use my words purposefully here because that’s how it can feel)
Rising to the bait is not helpful. Resist the temptation to get into arguments, raise your voice or personally attack the bully. Practice ‘detached involvement’. Use your mind’s eye to look down on the event like an independent third party in the room. What advice would you give to you in the moment?
After the event, record every detail. Write down what was said, where and by whom. The minutes before the event may be important. Was the bully waiting to ambush you? Did they engineer a situation to put you on the back-foot? Was this a total surprise? How did it make you feel? Did you fear for your physical safety? No actual threat needs to be verbalised for you to feel physically threatened. Tone of voice and body language are enough to convey a threat. It doesn’t matter that the bully might not have meant to threaten you, what matters is whether you perceived there to be one.
This process of recording events and feelings is important. The notes will be vital in case of legal proceedings, should you go down that route. They will also help as a way for you to gain perspective and shape your thoughts.
Seek corroborating evidence of this person’s behaviours.
Who else is being bullied? How? What impact is this person’s behaviour having on the organisation culture, productivity and success? Is (s)he alone or is this sort of behaviour endemic, especially at senior levels? This evidence should help you see it isn’t personal. You are not being picked out because you are somehow failing, weak or deserving of this treatment. You are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and perhaps an easy target.
I found this process particularly helpful. It allowed me to step back from the personal feelings of fear and anger whilst carrying out some qualitative research. I wasn’t an independent observer, but I was able to engage in activities that supported my decision-making.
Speak to trusted colleagues who will not divulge your situation to anyone else, especially the bully or his/her entourage. Of paramount importance is senior support, preferably someone more senior than the bully. Your line manager, HR or trades unions can all offer support. If the bully is your line manager, can you speak to their manager? Can they be trusted? Does your country have telephone help-lines or other free support services available? You may consider enlisting the services of a coach, counsellor or therapist.
During the first episode of bullying, my job involved a lot of driving so I was always listening to audio tapes in my car (my ‘university on wheels’) and one came in very useful. This was a tape of Susan Jeffers narrating her book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Her positive affirmations came in very handy. I would repeat the following in my head, or out loud if I was alone:
- I am powerful and I am loving!
- I am powerful and I am loved!
- I am powerful and I love it!
This, and other affirmations helped me a great deal then and have done so in many challenging and important situations since.
Make a decision.
Decide whether you want to
- challenge the bully
- enlist the support of your manager or others within the organisation
- change the bully’s behaviour towards you and stay in the role
- attempt a move to another role within the organisation
- raise a grievance using internal HR processes
- take legal action
- walk away from the organisation
There is no right or wrong answer here. More than one option might apply and some might be tried then stopped if not successful.
Note that I have not listed the option to ignore the bullying and put up with it. This is a sure way to ill-health, loss of confidence and a lowering of self-esteem. Only you can decide what is best for you, given the circumstances in which you find yourself.
You always have choices. The trick is to seek support, make decisions and take action.
Good luck my friend!