We all hate bullies. I know I do. Ever since Ricky F. smashed my lunch every day of 5th grade I’ve hated them.
Then we get older and go to work. We think we’ve finally grown up and don’t have to deal with bullies anymore. Then it happens – we find we’re working with Ricky F. the bully (or even worse, the bully is our boss).
It’s a painful and not-too-uncommon situation. So what can you do other than sit there and take it?
You can fight back. You can beat that bully up (figuratively – I am not advocating workplace violence as much as some people might even deserve a smack upside the head or a punch in the beak).
Beating up bullies has become acceptable behavior. Heck, there’s even a great show on MTV2 called Bully Beatdown. My son and I love watching it (we even ran into the host, Mayhem, at LAX a coupla months ago and he is amazingly cool). The whole premise of the show is people submit bullies to the show, Mayhem invites the bully to come on and fight a mixed martial arts fighter, and invariably the bully is humbled. Awesome show.
So how can you stage your own bully beatdown at the office?
First you have to identify what kind of bully you’re dealing with. Once you’ve done that, there are four techniques you can use to break the cycle of bullying. They are direct feedback, inclusion, professional smack-down, and frontal assault.
Before beating up a bully, you have to know what you’re dealing with. Bullying has its roots in insecurity. The bully feels in some way inadequate. To compensate for that, the bully chooses to push others down rather than facing and overcoming that insecurity.
Insecurities can range from physical ones (short, weird, bald) to intellectual ones (not too bright, promoted past the point of competence) to emotional ones (not loved, abused, ignored at home, excluded as a child). All these insecurities are sources of pain for the bully. The bully’s desire to make the pain go away manifests itself as lashing out at others, causing pain in them, or asserting a position of dominance to compensate for feelings of weakness or helplessness. Yes, today’s post is a bit of a psychology lesson.
Bullies can occupy several positions in our lives: coworker, customer, boss, supplier, etc. Depending on which role the bully occupies and the source of their insecurity, you’ll need to utilize different techniques for dealing with them (assuming you want the bully to stop picking on you).
Take a moment to think of the bully. What’s their role? How do they behave? What do you perceive that weakness to be that they’re compensating for? Got it? Good. Let’s solve your bully problem.
Technique 1: Direct Feedback
This approach can be used with all categories of bullies and for all reasons they act like bullies. It’s the best place to start. Let the bully know you’d like to get some time on their calendar to talk about how things are going between the two of you and to address some concerns you have. Don’t ambush them in a hallway with feedback – they’ll get defensive then go on the attack. By setting aside time, you’re enabling them to enter the conversation with an open mind.
In that meeting, use the classic feedback model. Describe the behavior you’ve observed from them, confirm they know the incident you’re talking about, tell them how it made you feel, and offer how you’d like similar situations handled in the future.
Example: “Remember in last week’s staff meeting when you told me ‘Shut your cakehole!’? Yes? You remember. Okay. That made me feel like you didn’t value my opinion and it made me not want to offer other thoughts because I was embarrassed in front of the team. When you did that I didn’t want to get yelled at again. In the future, I’d prefer you either let me offer my thoughts or if it’s the wrong time for that, ask me to hold my suggestions until later.”
Hopefully the bully is mature and professional enough to handle the feedback well and change behaviors.
Technique 2: Inclusion
Inclusion also works on all types of bullies. It can be very effective on bullies who act that way because they’ve been ridiculed or excluded in their past. They’re likely bullying and attacking because they feel left out of the group.
Include them. When the team goes to lunch, invite the boss. If it’s a coworker and the whole team is meeting about a project, invite them to join. Solicit their opinion on things. It’s teamwork 101 people. The more you exclude the person because of their bad behavior, the more they’ll behave badly. They’re clearly not capable of reversing the negative dynamic. You as a leader need to take the first difficult steps in changing things. It’s not hard. Invite them to join you.
When the bully feels included, they’re less likely to lash out and punish you for hurting their feelings when you don’t include them. Hopefully the more included they feel, the less they’ll have a need to bully.
Technique 3: Professional Smack-down
This is a bit of tough love and requires you to assert yourself in a professional way. I don’t recommend it for bosses or customers but it can be very helpful with coworkers, team members, or suppliers. Resort to this only after you’ve tried direct feedback.
When the bully acts up (either in private or in public), you’ll need to be direct and forceful. “Ricky, I know you’ve told me to shut my cakehole. I’d prefer we elevate the conversation to a more professional level. Can we discuss the facts of the issue we’re struggling with as a team rather than resorting to name calling?”
You’ve maintained your composure. You’ve defined what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. You’ve focused everyone back on the real work to be done. Everyone in the room is probably silently cheering you on and supporting you. You’ve definitely earned some professionalism points with that one.
Technique 4: Frontal Assault
This is a last resort. Hopefully you’ve tried the other three techniques first. Unfortunately they clearly haven’t worked. The bully continues to bully. Again, I don’t recommend this one with bosses or customers unless you’re cool with making a career-limiting move.
It’ll go something like this:
Ricky: “Shut your cakehole Mike!”
Mike: “Hey Ricky, I’m sick of your bullying. It’s completely ridiculous and unprofessional. I’ve asked you to stop acting like this before but apparently I speak at a frequency you can’t hear. Your behavior is utterly unproductive. How about you shut *your* cakehole for a change so the rest of us can actually get some work done?”
Yep. Ugly. It’ll be epic water cooler conversation. It will definitely end things one way or the other. Again, I don’t recommend this one. It’s clearly the nuclear option. That said, life is too short to be miserable at work and let bullies continue smashing your lunch.
How have you dealt with bullies in your work environment? We’d love to hear your suggestions and techniques.