What works and what doesn't work in dealing with bullies.
First a story...
I was working in an information technology department where the director (let's call him John) was a very abusive. One time I overheard him tell his secretary: “when people hear feedback from me, it’s only negative, so you should be happy you are not getting any”. Another time, the director told me with a smile: “Steve [one of the managers] went home crying, he couldn't handle my critique of his report", he needs to toughen up”.
John's influence pervaded the entire department, to the point that others that were not abusive to begin with, started showing abusive behavior. I remember feeling queasy about showing up to work and meeting with the director. I avoided him. I had little experience dealing with bullies.
The culture of the organization became one where we were all afraid of saying the wrong thing, of not knowing answers to questions, of not having solutions to problems. We were all very intimidated; no one wanted to be a target.
Some of my co-workers told me that they started going out for drinks with the director as a way to stay on his good side.Others, including me, started looking for another job. As a group, we started taking fewer and fewer risks; we were reluctant to accept responsibility for anything going wrong, we didn't want to face John's wrath. As a department, we became mediocre.
We took actions to stop the abusive director.
My actions were based on the advice I got from a friend. When I was struggling with this bully director, I told my friend Helen about it. Helen is 20 years my senior, so she’s been around. When I told Helen everything about the situation at work with our abusive boss, she told me: “Imelda, this is a great opportunity for you to learn about yourself, about how to deal with abusive people”. I thought she was nuts and unsupportive. My answer to her then was “whatever”.
However, time helped me see her point. Helen’s advice led me to decide that: (1) If I ever became a director myself, I wouldn’t be like him, (2) If I ever ran into another bully boss, I would not internalize his verbal abuse. So - paying it forward - I offer the same words to you, look beyond the dark side of people bullying and take the lessons learned with you.
During the ordeal I also observed what other people did, and I learned to do and what not to do in dealing with bullies.
Another action that worked in dealing with our bully director was something that one of my co-workers did. She went to the Personnel Department and complained about the behavior of our director. From that point forward John treated her more respectfully than the rest. Other people saw that and went to Personnel too. Some of us didn’t know what to make of it, so we didn’t go to Personnel. We were afraid there would be negative consequences from getting Personnel involved. Well, in the end, Personnel became a protective shield to the employees and John started to feel uncomfortable. He found another job and left.
You would think his leaving was the end of the problem. It wasn’t. A lot of the people that didn’t complain to Personnel couldn’t shake the feeling of having been victimized. The feeling stayed with them, even when the bully was gone. In my case, I learned that feelings of humiliation are truly a positive thing. They mean my ego is taking a beating, and I welcome anything that helps me decrease the size of my ego. As my ego gets smaller, my spirit gets freer.
I don’t want you to misunderstand me here. I do prefer to get treated respectfully and I also treat others with respect. But if I run across abusive people, I no longer let it bother me and I no longer internalize the abuse. I see it for what it is: a problem that the abusive people have to fix on their own. I can’t fix it for them. All I can do is stopping them from acting out on their abusive attitude.
To sum up what works and doesn’t work in dealing with bullies.
• Bringing the issue to HR. They will be in a very good position to know if your claims have merit, and whether or not intervention is needed.
• Finding a better work environment more suited to who you are.
• Confronting the bully. Make sure you plan out what you’re going to say. A very good book that can help you design the confrontation is “Crucial Confrontations” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.
• Talking to an attorney to figure out if you are being the victim of harassment
• Avoiding the bully
• Pretending the abuse does not exist
• Gossiping about the bully and using the bully as an excuse for poor performance on your part
• Asking the bully to stop
• Going out for drinks with the bully
In conclusion, you don't have to put up with verbal abuse at the office. There are specific actions that you can take to deal with bullies at work.