There is a proliferation of bad behavior in the workplace. In August 2010, the Workplace Bullying Institute commissioned Zogby International to conduct a national survey on the prevalence of on-the-job bullying. The results revealed that more than one in three—35 percent—of Americans have experienced bullying at work. Workplace bullying is not just an American epidemic, however; it’s a global phenomenon. In a 2011 Monster Global Poll, 64 percent of 16,517 workers worldwide answered ‘yes’ to the question “Have you ever been bullied at work?” Of those surveyed, 83 percent of European respondents reported being the victims of workplace bullying, along with 65 percent in the Americas and 55 percent in Asia.
Over the three decades we have spent as executive coaches, we have learned that what executives say and do, and how they say and do it, matters to the culture and productivity of their organizations and to their relationships with others. We have observed that dealing with bullies is a skill that has to be learned, and although we may not be able to change the bully, we can and must change our approach to dealing with him. The Bully-Proof Workplace provides the critical insight and practical tools to successfully combat the behavior of the bully, as these office sociopaths can make their coworkers miserable, which in turn can bring down morale, creativity, productivity and profitability.
So, first off, what is bullying?
Bullying is the repeated attempt to demean, diminish, defame, dominate or coerce others until they give up their point of view. Bullies lie, obstruct the truth, boast about their supernormal abilities or accomplishments, whether true or not, and say and do things impulsively. Usually a bully abuses power that is gained or given to him. He seldom feels guilt or remorse and is unaware of how he makes others feel. Bullying is not managing or leading. It is offensive and oppressive in an organization. Bullies create a hostile work atmosphere, which in turn spawns a negative workplace culture.
The gruffness of a bully’s language offends our desire for civil discourse and reasonableness in communication. Bullies hardly offer any guidance or inspiration. Their monologues are usually intended to put down a person, a practice or a policy. The bully expects his audiences to stay and listen, but he doesn’t appear to respect them. Any indications of respect are observed as mechanical gestures without much sincerity. A bully shows no remorse for lying with his grossly misleading and puffed-up statistics, even when corrected. He continually tells us how smart he is and yet blocks truthful commentary.
We have identified four types of bullies:
The Belier uses slander, deception and gossip to manipulate her outcome.
The Blocker uses nitpicking, negativity and inflexibility to get his way.
The Braggart uses narcissism and a sense of superiority to put others down.
The Brute uses aggression and intimidation to force others to acquiesce to his will.
Dealing with each type of bully requires a different approach. What is the same in all four types is that they operate under the same desperate need for control based on deep-seated fear and insecurity.
We must not be passive with bullies. It is too easy to just opt out and hope for the best. That would be unwise. We must learn how to hold them accountable. It is up to all of us to hire, train and develop people in our companies who will contribute to building a culture of honesty, truth-telling and promise-keeping.
Here are some strategic tips for dealing with a workplace bully:
- Be sure you are being repeatedly targeted by a bully who has negative intent and demeaning behavior directed to you. Evidence of this will emerge if you document incidents describing the situation, the behavior of bullying, and the consequences. Collecting up to ten incidents should provide enough evidence that you are being targeted.
- With most types of bullying (Belier, Blocker and Braggart), we recommend setting up a private meeting to confront the bully in a direct, specific and non-punishing way—not for retaliation, but to establish common ground to deal with the issue. If your first step is to complain to HR, they will ask you to have a similar meeting before they get involved. The first part of this meeting should be scripted to review the incidents you have catalogued.
Note that when dealing with the Brute, confrontation can make things even worse. Our book provides more strategies for resolving conflicts and co-existing with any workplace bully you may encounter.
Peter J. Dean is the co-author of The Bully-Proof Workplace: Essential Strategies, Tips and Scripts for Dealing with the Office Sociopath, with Molly D. Shepard; published by McGraw-Hill, March 2017.