by May Bleeker, Feb 2009. Updated March 2013
If bullying at work is making you feel like Dilbert and the Evil HR Director, don't despair. Even the worst workplace bullies can be overcome.
For years I worked for small companies, run by bosses who loved to belittle, intimidate, humiliate and badger their employees. Without enjoying it much, I got a fairly good understanding of bullying at work and the people who did the bullying.
When I eventually 'graduated' to having a more humane and supportive work experience, I started noticing people who seemed to attract ill treatment even in relatively peaceful environments.
Certain managers or colleagues who sometimes behaved badly (e.g. acted stroppy, got a bit nasty, or overly authoritarian in manner, giving unreasonable responses to requests etc) would tend to pick on a specific member of our team, but treat the rest of us quite well.
No matter how much we encouraged our colleague to 'stand up for herself', she found this hard to do and was regularly upset, stressed and unhappy due to her managers' rude and unfair treatment.
From seeing this I gained a lot of insight into what makes a person vulnerable to bullying at work. Assertiveness and knowing your own boundaries and how to defend them has everything to do with it.
During my 'boss from hell' days I was completely in the dark as to why I always ended up working for women who relished undermining and insulting their employees and generally abusing their power. I never knew what made me escape the worst of it, nor what allowed some of it to happen to me. Was it just bad luck? I think not.
I noticed that sometimes the submissive way my colleague behaved gave her manager the opportunity to bully her. It was almost as if her manager took her meekness as an invitation to be unreasonably harsh.
When this same manager approached me in a tough way I always responded with a similar firmness of manner (tone of voice, looking her in the eye, showing confidence in myself etc) and somehow she never got around to bullying me.
Once or twice she tried to intimidate me, but I stood my ground, was polite and remained helpful, and that was the end of it. She always treated me with respect and consideration, even on days when she seemed in a bad mood with my colleague.
It made me see more clearly that what we do influences what other people do to us. How we behave either discourages or encourages people to treat us respectfully.
But it can be hard to see yourself objectively when you are in the middle of an experience. Even explaining what I saw was not enough to help my colleague out of her situation. She knew she needed to become more assertive - but she found this difficult because she feared what would happen if she stood up for herself!
I believe it was partly her fear that made her vulnerable to the bullying. By approaching situations timidly and fearfully, she allowed her manager too much power in some situations. She deferred too much and did not maintain her own 'space' firmly enough. In a sense she gave her manager everything right from the start, which meant her manager never had to try to meet her half-way.
And if she wanted any concessions at all, even the one's she was perfectly entitled to, she had to fight really hard for them, because she had already conceded them, even without being asked to do so.
Right next door to her several other people were enjoying these same concessions from that same manager as if we were entitled to them. Which we were, as so was my colleague. Only, my colleague did not feel she was entitled, and therefore allowed her manager far too much leeway, even in the small things.
So in a way, her behaviour and beliefs were part of that bad situation. Something about how she was accustomed to dealing with authority was making her more vulnerable to bullying at work.
This is also not to say that you are at fault every time someone acts like an ass towards you. There are many ill-mannered, unhappy people out there just looking for a place to dump their anger and frustration. There are some things you can do, however, to strongly discourage these people from ever trying to dump it on you.
These are general tips. But how you deal with bullying at work depends on who is doing the bullying. Please read the info I provide for when the bully is your boss and when the bully is your colleague , as you will handle these two types of bullying at work differently.
They strive to create situations in which they can 'triumph' at someone else's expense and they choose people who offer 'soft targets'. Gentle, soft-hearted, unassertive, sensitive people who are not accustomed to standing up for themselves in conflict make excellent 'targets' for bullying at work.
People with low self esteem, who doubt themselves, are nervous about asserting themselves and who are accustomed to criticizing themselves, also make excellent targets.
People who grew up with overly authoritarian, aggressive (verbal or physical) care-givers can also be prone to being bullied. As a child you learn to 'adapt' to this kind of behaviour by finding ways to please the person, or ways to avoid displeasing them.
Children with aggressive caregivers learn to anticipate and comply with their care-givers' every want and need in order to 'keep the peace'. In the process they learn to ignore, suppress or under-value their own wants and needs.
Trying to 'be good', to 'please' and to 'avoid conflict', and allowing the aggressive person to dictate control of the situation - are all coping mechanisms that help a child survive this type of care-giving. But as an adult, these same tendencies can invite inconsiderate and selfish people to mop the floor with you. They can invite bullying at work or at home.
A bully might 'test' you by being a little rude on one occasion. They might make a little joke at your expense. If you make no response at all, but passively accept it, next time they will be a little bolder. Their bad behaviour escalates and before you know it they have crossed that invisible line and are making a doormat out of you.
Assertiveness is part skill, part courage and part good judgement. Skills can be learned, but the courage and good judgement are up to you as an individual. In some situations it will be appropriate to assert yourself, but not in others. You have to decide for yourself.
Non-verbal behaviour is an important part of giving an 'off-limit's' signal. Projecting confidence and assertiveness through non-verbal behaviour such as strong eye contact, upright body posture, strong voice tone, and self-assured responses goes a long way towards discouraging someone from ever 'testing' you.
The most effective way to deal with bullying at work is to prevent it, if at all possible. When a situation has developed into something you have to address in words it becomes more difficult, particularly when you are dealing with the boss, for example.
If someone does try to bully you at work, deal with it right away. You don't have to make a huge song and dance about it. When they make that little mean joke that crosses the line, laugh and make one back. Just send a reply back that makes it clear they can't say and do whatever they like. Making light fun of their poor approach can do the trick. (e.g. Are you always this inconsiderate, or are you just having an off day?).
Take care if doing this with the boss! A sense of humour can be great, but use your judgement and tact! Joking may be fine for some but not for others.
With difficult relationships take special care with what you say and how you say it. Words can easily be misinterpreted with negative consequences. Never be inappropriate.
That being said, laughter is always better than angry confrontation. Even giving the person a firm look can be a discouragement. Let them know, with your body language, that you are watchful and ready to deal with any nonsense they might dish out.
Don't stoop to their level. If you're not used to banter - find someone to practice with so that you can handle tricky situations with humour and a bit of wit.
Call bullies up on their behaviour and very often they back down immediately. It is better to deal lightly with issues when they are small and unimportant than to let small grievances slide until you are dealing with serious disrespect.
It won't help to over-react. If someone is aggravating you, but doing it in a joking way (which is often how bullying starts), its best to respond in kind, rather than blowing up over something small. To do this successfully you need to learn to trust your own judgement of a situation. Trusting your own judgement is a hallmark of healthy self esteem.
I write 'victim' in inverted commas because the recipients of bullying at work are not true victims.
A pregnant woman, stuck up a tree in a flood, who needs to be rescued by helicopter is a true victim. She is helpless and unable to get out of the situation without assistance from someone else.
Most people who are bullied are not helpless. They have just not yet learnt how to handle bullying behaviour successfully. Of course, I am referring to adults here, and verbal or emotional bullying and not physical abuse.
I'm making this point because part of the reason that people end up being bullied at work is that they are often passive and feel helpless.
Feeling helpless is what keeps you trapped in a bad situation. Before you can get yourself out, you have to be able to act on your own behalf instead of waiting to be rescued. We might not be able to choose what happens to us, but we most definitely can choose how to respond. Read An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters to see what I mean.
'Victims' of bullying are often reactive rather than pro-active i.e. they tend to respond to situations rather than taking charge of them.
If you are not accustomed to choosing your plans and making them clear to others, it might be a good idea to start learning how to be assertive.
If you go quietly about your business expecting everyone to automatically respect your wishes you are in for a rude surprise when some people don't.
How can they respect your wishes when they don't even know what they are? When preferences are being discussed get into the habit of clearly stating yours.
Use your judgement, though. Sometimes its appropriate to contribute and sometimes there is timing involved. Choose your timing. But don't just amble along under the radar or you will find yourself dancing to someone else's tune and your own plans falling by the wayside.
Do You Know What You Want?
A common problem for people accustomed to pleasing others is that they don't spend a lot of time examining what they want. They spend their time trying to anticipate what the other person wants. As a result, when confronted with a choice they tend to be non-committal or uncertain about their own needs and all to ready to go along with the demands of others.
People accustomed to getting what they want, expect their needs to be considered and act accordingly, which often leads to them getting at least some of what they want, most of the time. When they pair up with people accustomed to pleasing others they fair even better. If you are a people-pleaser, is it any wonder you attract people who want their own way? Of course you will. You are two puzzle-pieces that fit neatly together. A giver and a taker.
If you want things to change, however, you will need to change your own behaviour first.
Pleasing and giving to others is fine, as long as it is balanced by you having a clear understanding of what you want and what you are happy to give up. Making sure that some of your needs are met some of the time is important.
If you are pleasing others automatically, watch out! Resentment tends to creep in over time, even when you are the person deciding to please. And if you always give without question, there are some who will quickly take your giving for granted.
Strong personal boundaries ward off bullying at work. Your boundaries are made up of your values and how you express them. If one of my values is to have a family life, then a personal boundary would be that I make sure my work doesn't overshadow my home life.
In practice this means I am careful about how much overtime I work because I want to have time to spend with my family. I pitch in when necessary, but sometimes I will have to say 'no' in order to respect my own boundary. If I never say no, and give in whenever a request is made, regardless of what is needed at home, this is not having a firm boundary.
Personal boundaries are also seen in what you allow other people to do towards you. For example I would never allow someone to call me an 'idiot' or a 'moron' at work. Another person might, but not me. That is one of my boundaries. I don't do name-calling and I don't allow it to be done to me either.
Guarding your personal boundaries requires assertiveness. It also requires common sense and good judgement.
As mentioned before, how you handle bullying at work depends on who's doing the bullying. What will work for a friend or colleague will not necessarily be successful with a manager!
Your life is important. Fight for it.
Honour your highest potentials. - Nathaniel Branden
For more info on bullying at work check out:
Melany Gallant's article is very interesting in that it mentions a study showing links between bullying at work and executives with personality disorders. (It makes sense, doesn't it?) In a comparison between high level British executives and criminal psychiatric patients findings showed that three out of eleven personality disorders (Histrionic, Narcissistic, Obsessive Compulsive) were more common in the executives than in the disturbed criminals.