Bullies are not just nightmares left over from high school; adult bullies can be found in our organizations as well. While they are unlikely to toss you in a locker or humiliate you in the school bathroom, bullies are still out there. They just take on a new form, and can be just as destructive and stress inducing as ever.
Have you ever worked for someone who is never pleased? They criticize in public every chance they get? They act as though no one is as good as them, and tell you how you are not meeting expectations? What about that person who says one thing in front of others, and does another? You know you can never trust or rely on that person. And then there are people who take credit for others work. These folks exist in most organizations at some time or another.
Sometimes, too, people are just mean. They treat you poorly – maybe it’s personal, maybe they treat everyone that way. You don’t know what you did to deserve this treatment, and you walk on proverbial eggshells around them. It’s stressful, it takes energy away from the work at hand, and interferes with company business. So what do you do when faced with an office bully?
In my experience, when you are being bullied at work, it is almost never about you. People aren’t perfect, and if they have challenges in life, some of them react badly. They might be anxious, insecure, unsupported, feel threatened, have issues at home, and many things in their background that are even worse. A bully is being driven by his or her “lizard brain”. Do you feel like you are living in a “fight or flight” scenario? The bully probably does too. And then, sometimes, people believe that being dictatorial and demanding is the only way to manage others. It doesn’t matter why a bully became a bully; just understand that you didn’t make the bully. You just found yourself in their cross-hairs.
Resist the urge to respond in kind. As much as you may want to, resist the urge to fight back, be snarky, or treat them the same way. Not only will it not resolve the issue, but it may make the issue worse. Give the bully ammunition to use against you. As difficult as it is, focus on the work at hand and respond as professionally as possible. Do NOT apologize if you have done nothing wrong. Instead, refer back to facts, and request specifics if additional work is being requested. Keep calm and professional at all costs. Sometimes, avoidance can help, particularly if the person is not your immediate supervisor. Try to be with this person only with at least one other person present.
Separate intent from style. Can you negotiate a path to work with the person? A while back I had a client organization that had a very difficult office culture. There was a lot of mistrust and animosity in the organization, and this tricked down to my team as well. One of my key contracts was particularly difficult. He was bellicose, threatened to fire us on a regular basis, and never seemed to be satisfied. I avoided him for a long time, but I really couldn’t be effective that way. So I decided to treat him as if he was a great guy. It took a while, but I gained his trust. I came to understand that he felt disrespected and ignored by his colleagues, and passed down that frustration. Also, he worried how the work of the team would reflect on him. Once I understood this, and we had learned what each other expected, we developed a much better working relationship, and I was able to see the nice guy that he usually kept at home. I talk a lot in my work about starting from a place of compassion. Having compassion for bullies helps remind you that it is their issue, not yours.
Document and keep records. It’s not enough to keep your behavior professional. When dealing with a bully personality, it helps to formalize your communication. Get as much in writing as possible. If the bully assigns work to you verbally, confirm the request in a follow up email. Make sure that you have a mutual understanding of the work to be produced, including the format, the level of detail, and the timeline for production. Frequent check-ins may help build rapport and trust. Also, take notes of all incidents of poor behavior or criticism. Take note of any time that reference is made to unsatisfactory performance. You may need these later. It takes time and energy, and you may never need it (bullies rarely follow through on threats). But if you do need it, it will be invaluable.
Build strong networks for support. The wider and deeper your network extends into the organization, the less power the bully has. Develop relationships across various departments, and at various levels of authority. This network will serve you in many ways. It will help you see beyond the bully to what others think of your work. It can protect you by providing an alternate narrative to the one the bully is promoting. And, if all else fails, your network can help you move to another position in the organization, away from the bully’s reach.