What to Do When You Don’t Know What To Do: How to deal with a workplace bully
John slammed his fist down on the office table. His face was red as he glowered at Marcus and me.
“This is not the analysis I asked for! Just give me the two-sentence version on why I should buy into your recommendation. And get rid of these spreadsheets. I hate spreadsheets with nonsense like this!”
Marcus hesitated a moment and reached for the notebook with the spreadsheets.
John hit the top of the notebook with his flat hand before Marcus could take the notebook, and yelled, “What part didn’t you understand? Leave the notebook alone. I said just give me the two-sentence version, and now!”
Marcus quickly summarized our position, I added my points, and we left John’s office, with John still glowering.
Had that really happened? Did he really speak to us like that?
Yes, it really happened. John was “further up the ladder” than us, but did he have any right to act that way?
ABSOLUTELY NOT. John is a workplace bully.
If I knew then what I know now about handling workplace bullying, that would have been an entirely different scenario.
In that situation, Marcus and I were both caught off guard. We wanted to say something, but didn’t know what to say, or do, for that matter.
Here are some pointers that the more experienced me would have given to us back then, and I offer to you now. These are four immediately effective ways to stop a workplace bully from bullying you.
In essence, this means turn the tables on the bully.
We’ve been taught to “own our feelings” and say, “I don’t like it when you speak to me that way.” A bully will likely perceive that as weakness or you being emotional, and probably doesn’t care how you feel anyway. Instead, turn the tables and put the behavior spotlight back on them.
Instead of using the word “I,” use the word “you.”
In our example, Marcus or I could have said, “Are you really talking to us that way?” or “Are you really going to solve this by yelling?”
“Doing the You” calls the bully’s behavior into account. Say something that moves the focus directly on to their behavior so they are the one on the defensive, not you.
- Disrupt by interrupting
If a person persists in mistreating you, if they are blaming or name calling, it’s time to stop the argument right there. Author Jack Canfield says, “People treat us the way we teach them to treat us.”
First, say their name to get their attention and to cause a pause.
Then you can use body language and gestures. Put up your hand like a traffic cop and INTERRUPT a tirade from a bully! Don’t suffer in silence and give unscrupulous people an undeserved bully pulpit.
Just hold up your hand about shoulder height, with the flat of your hand to them, (not in their face) and say, “John, stop!” or “Mikayla, enough!” That is a universal gesture that everyone understands and it adds visual clarification to your words.
- De-escalate by rising
You might be at your desk when the workplace bully arrives to impose herself upon you. You find yourself in the uncomfortable position of being seated, while she is in the “commanding” position, towering over you.
You can de-escalate the tension, and the perceived imbalance of power, by simply rising from your chair. You don’t cower; you tower as well. Push your chair back and stand to meet the bully. This doesn’t mean you are trying to be the Incredible Hulk. You are simply showing with your body language, and it will immediately be clear, “I am not taking what you are saying sitting down.”
It’s another way to use body language in a productive and expressive way to send a message to the bully.
- Deter by documenting
Oftentimes you can unsettle a wrokplace bully who is verbally attacking you by simply saying, “Please wait a minute while I get a pen and paper, I want to write down what you’re saying so I don’t miss anything.” This is certain to throw a bully off course.
Who wants their unprofessional and unnecessary ranting to be written down in black and white?
Not only is it a break in the bully’s energy flow, it raises the question in their mind, “Could that be kept as legitimate documentation against me at some point?” And indeed it could be. Written documentation is always a good practice when you are being bullied.
You can use these few methods right away in your workplace. They are time tested TongueFu®* principles, or “martial arts for the mind and mouth,” and will take you far in dealing with any bully who crosses your path.
Lori Bachman wrote this for her blog. This class is no longer offered at CFU, but we hope you enjoy the information.