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How to Confront the Workplace Bully

According to our study of 2,283 people, 96 percent of respondents say
they have experienced workplace bullying. Eighty-nine percent
of those bullies have been at it for more than a year; 54 percent for more than five years. In some cases, the survey found, bullies have continued in the same job for 30-plus years.

Bullying can’t persist unless there is a complete breakdown in all four systems of
accountability—personal accountability (the victim himself or herself), peer (others who
witness the behavior), supervisory accountability (hierarchical leaders), and formal discipline (HR)—according to our research. It was surprising to see that in many
organizations, not just one, but all four of these systems were terribly weak. As a result, the person most likely to remain in his or her job was the bully. Equally surprising was the
widespread effect of bullying. It was rare that the alleged bully picked on a single target. In fact, 80 percent of respondents said the bully affected five or more people.

So, how do you stop a bully? The study showed that the most effective deterrent is the skillful verbal intervention of the person being targeted. Next most effective is informal peer accountability. While in high-accountability organizations all four must be strong—personal, peer, boss and formal discipline—the study showed that the first breakdown is in personal accountability. When individuals and peers who experience or see bullying say nothing, the bully gets emboldened. And the more who join in the silence, the more evidence the bully has that the behavior is sustainable.

Here are five tips for how to confront your workplace bully.

1. Reverse your thinking. Most of us suffer in silence because all we consider are the risks of speaking up. Those who speak up and hold others accountable tend to do the opposite. They think first about the risks of NOT speaking up. Changing the order of the risk assessment makes you much more likely to take action.

2. Facts first. Present your information, as if talking to a jury. Stick with the detailed facts. Be specific. Strip out any judgmental or provocative language.

3. Validate concerns. Often the bullying behavior was triggered by some legitimate concern. Be sure to validate that need while demonstrating an unwillingness to tolerate the way it was handled.

4. Share natural consequences. Let them know the consequences of behavior—to you, others, customers, projects, etc.

5. Hold boundaries. Let them know how you expect to be treated in the future. Ask for their commitment. And let them know what your next step will be if there is a

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19 thoughts on “How to Confront the Workplace Bully”

  1. Joyce Allen

    How do you handle a new manager who talks down to everyone?

    1. Dean Jarvis

      The trick here is to get in early, if he talks down to you, draw a line in the sand immediately. Have a closed door discussion and remind him/her you do not appreciate being spoken down to. In fact, remind them that you are there to help them look good in their new role, as long as they engage you in a manner that is not condescending. This may take several attempts.Of course, use appropriate language, and be careful of tone and body language. Of course, you must handle your own internal dialogue first. The default internal story usually centers around risk. The foremost risk is ‘what if he/she manages me out of the business’? So what?.. If they do that, then they are not worth working for anyhow. Someone who descends to that level of behavior have low emotional intelligence and poor core character attributes, who wants to work for someone like that? If you need the job however, use a regimented avoidance strategy, strictly phone calls and e-mails. Best to use e-mails only and strictly facts only. Do not forget the use of silence as a tool. When forced to engage with this person, be careful of tone and body language, be sure to learn to control your micro expression as well. Your own internal dialogue at each interaction is absolutely crucial, do not default to a victim mentality.Internal default dialogue is a real trap, as this becomes a faulty entrenched thinking pattern that the ancient brain will default to automatically as part of our evolutionary flight response. Thankfully our modern mind can overcome it, but it does mean retraining of the brain. The best way to understand this is education. Educate yourself on how to achieve this. A suggested model is the SCARF model and the Ladder of inference models. These will put you on the path to self help, the best form of help there is.

      Another consideration is understanding the new managers own internal story. Try to understand why this person needs to do this. Does he/she do this as a result of a faulty entrenched thinking pattern? Try to gain their confidence and help them change. They may accept or reject your help, but at least you tried.


      1. Nelson da Silva

        Great reply!

    2. William Tucker

      talk to HR

  2. miles

    Bullying can be devastating for ones confidence and self-esteem. They need lots of love and support, both at home and wherever the bullying is happening. They also need to know that you will take action to prevent any further bullying. You can give support by listening and talking with them and offer them them some compassion and support.

  3. Lora Schafer (@loraschafer)

    This was a great post! I think the key is in the emboldening. I agree that saying something quickly makes a huge difference. If you see something, say something.

  4. How to Confront the Workplace Bully | Crucial S...

    […] According to our study of 2,283 people, 96 percent of respondents say they have experienced workplace bullying. Eighty-nine percent of those bullies have been at it for more than a year; 54 percent for more than five years.  […]

  5. EAD

    Many workplace bullies tend to be the boss and they seem to know exactly how to bully without crossing any formal lines where they can be called out. They also like to document every little mistake you might make while letting others that are in good with them slide on the same infractions. It seems no matter how good you do your job they will always find a way to screw with you. How do you beat these people?

    1. Sandra Cavers

      I am dealing with the same type of struggle, an individual that bullies and gets away with it, has at least one human rights complaint against him and I threatened one but didn’t follow through. He’s influenced other managers about me in a negative light and denies any wrong doing repeatedly, saying I’m playing the victim. How does one combat someone of influence that intentionally halts your career because you stood up to him? Being a woman and knowing he has serious issues with women…this man has almost destroyed me and actively hindered my career. Any tips would be welcome.

  6. Jenn

    I’m a new supervisor and am experiencing reverse bullying! I am now supervising a group that used to be my peers. Our supervisor left and I became supervisor and you would think it was a free for all of we don’t have to listen to you. Now its gotten to the point one feels he doesn’t have to report to me when he will be out sick and instead calls his team members (not his supervisor). We have had a team mtg where we agreed as a team on the procedures we expect team members to take and of course two weeks later the same individual fails to follow what the team agreed upon and now wants to change the options….my only saving thread is 5 different leadership members now realize he is creating the disruptive workplace. I’m at a loss at what to do and ready to throw in the supervisor position but am only sticking it out because I refuse to be beat! Any suggestions are appreciated. Thanks for this post!

    1. Anara

      I was in the exact same situation several years ago. The team bully took pride in running off new supervisors and I was the third in one year. My first step was to create trust from the team. I held a team meeting where we set goals for the team, being mindful of turning the complaints the bully offered into an opportunity for team-based problem solving. I then scheduled a brief 1:1 get to know you with each team member to learn about their backgrounds and individual goals. Many felt safe in sharing their concerns about the bully. The bully was hostile during our meeting, and I worked hard to find common ground while setting boundaries. We had a rocky couple months. Like most bullies she had to test. But as the team saw that I was not budging in my boundaries they became more vocal and grew stronger together. She was standing out more and more. I think what really helped her develop trust in me was my asking her to share her experience and knowledge during team problem solving and when a temporary job came up that matched her skills I asked her if she wanted the additional responsibility. She needed to be valued, and respecting her while insisting she respected others is what turned our professional relationship around.

  7. Anonymous

    Interesting article; thanks for posting. Bullying (and its sister, “mobbing”) is an under-acknowledged workplace issue. I (a woman) presented the assignment, explained why I couldn’t do what was assigned, expressed my alarm at being put into a situation wherein the deliverable was in less than 24 hours on something I’d not worked with in over a year, and was told “Go back to your desk until you can get your emotions under control” not once, not twice, but three times. All the while he was red in the face and stood up; I was afraid he was going to physically throw me out of his office. After this, he told his manager how out of control I was, thus tarnishing my reputation. It’s ugly.

  8. RMG

    I appreciate any time you may have to listen and possibly offer some guidance. I am a newly hired office assistant of just over 3 months. The Operations Manager has been here 11 years. Back in Sept. she threatened to quit if the owner didn’t make his presence and participation more relevant. He is trying to step away from being here and told her if she wanted to leave, leave. They have a bitter relationship.

    Last September, the owner okayed her to hire another person to assist her with the work. He simply didn’t want to be bothered any longer. What I have experienced is she is lonely and honestly, there is no need for another full time person in this tiny office. This woman lacks leadership skills so her way of getting things done is by spewing her emotions in every corner of the office. She bullies, manipulates and uses quite a bit of emotional blackmail. It is exhausting to be around and to watch.

    Here is my query, I would like to save my job here. I have learned that in many businesses, small or large, bullying is prevalent. This is my 3rd position since Feb. 2015. I am tired of looking for a “better position”. I see potential, I just need to know the appropriate person to speak with. The owner avoids me, this woman is inflexible and again, she bullies everyone who crosses her path. This includes 19 crew members and 1 millennial estimator, who btw has been given outrageous privileges by the owner. These people, including the owner, don’t realize they are being manipulated and it’s exasperating to watch on a daily basis.

    There are no company policies/procedures in writing, so people are treated differently with benefits. I am grateful that there are some benefits offered. Certain people are salaried and certain are receiving hourly wages. Quite unbalanced. I want to either shift my position to part time versus resign. It is unbearable to be here, emotionally, physically and quite frankly, I have so much more to offer.

    I have emailed the owner w/ a request for a confidential meeting regarding a proposal for a part-time position that they are looking to fill. He told me yes, let’s talk and he feels that it would be best to speak the the (bully) operations manager beforehand, because he will talk with her about it anyway.

    We have no HR to go to, only this angry woman. Other than look for another job, I’m not sure what step to take next. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

  9. Sally

    I have been in my supervisory position for 11 years and for the entire time have been dealing with a staff person who tends to bully people to get her way. She has been reprimanded several times and was once close to being fired. She recognizes her tendencies and can sometimes be very sweet and endearing to others. You can almost “see” when she is ramping up to strike out at someone. How do I use that opportunity to ramp her down before she strikes out?

  10. MW-V

    I appreciate reading the comments. It made me realized that perhaps I was bullied over the years. I was hired to be a project manager. I noticed that not matter what I did, it was never good enough for our executive. I learned that I was not the choice of the executive. Therefore, every piece of work, every idea, every breadth as it related to me were NOT good enough even though it was considered EXCELLENT work by my director and manager. It got so that when I did work, my director and manager had to NOT revealed who did the work in fear that the executive would reject. It went on for a couple of years.

  11. marti

    Although I haven’t experienced bullying in the work place; this information is helpful to possibly assist others on how to handle.

  12. Yani Molina

    I loved the tip about reverse thinking. Sometimes we just need to be more courageous and take action. I have learned in time that not speaking is the worst we can do, however we need to be accurate in what we say.

  13. Kimberly Taylor

    All of these tips are helpful but I think the most important thing I can take away from this is to leave the emotions out-confront the facts. I do not like confrontational situations in the first place let alone knowing how I usually react when I’m feeling upset/overwhelmed. It is easy to let emotions take over and I found this little article insightful Now I just need to calm myself prior to having these conversations to ensure I can stay on track.

  14. Sam

    I have dealt with work place bulling since my first day on the job, my boss does nothing but have a talk with the person. It has been brought to my attention that she has been doing this for years(20yrs) to people not only in my department but others. I have tried sticking up for myself only to get treated worse by the bully. Now the other people I work with directly have started treating me that same way she does. Even though one of them often asked me why I get treated so differently than everyone else. To that I have no reply other than some people just think it is their right to treat people however they want. I am currently looking for another job because after a 1 1/2 yrs of this I cannot take it anymore, if affects my home life and work life. To all you bullies I hope KARMA comes around. We are not in grade school any more people, we are adults lets act like it, you don’t have to like the person you work with but you need to show some respect.

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