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How to Respond to a Workplace Bully

Dear Crucial Skills,

I recently read Joseph Grenny’s HBR article about being resilient in the face of harsh criticism. His insight was this: look for the grain of truth in feedback and you’ll increase your resiliency. Well, what if there isn’t a “grain of truth?” What if it isn’t feedback, but bullying? Bullies are adept at finding real or perceived weakness in others and exploiting it. In this case, it is not the “weakness” that is the problem, and searching for a “grain of truth” would empower the bully. What is the best way to deal with this?


Dear Grainless,

I could spend some time qualifying my response to your question by advising care in concluding someone’s entire intent is bullying. But I won’t. I will assume that you are 100% correct. The person we are considering has no legitimate concern, but rather is either fabricating or exploiting a weakness for the sole purpose of self-gratification. What next?

The first crucial question is “What do you really want?” If all you want is safety, you have two options:

Enforce your rights. First and foremost, if you feel physically or emotionally unsafe, you have rights and should demand them. Report abusive behavior to HR, or seek legal assistance.

Create distance. If needed, separate yourself from them in your current job, or find other employment. If you fail to take steps like these, you risk enabling the behavior and becoming accustomed to abuse—something that damages your mental health and well being.

If, on the other hand, you are not in immediate physical or emotional danger, and you want to continue in the work situation you’re in, you must in some way set and enforce boundaries.

You gain power over subtle bullying when you can describe it precisely. This can take work, but you can’t have a conversation if you can’t specify the problem. Let’s say that during meetings with peers (when the boss isn’t watching) this person resorts to name calling or raising their voice. Step one in setting a boundary is confronting the specific behavior. In Crucial Conversation we refer to this as “holding the right conversation.” Stop discussion of whatever issue is on the table and change the subject to the “process” issue. Stop talking about the “what” (the solution you’re debating), and shift to “how” the conversation is proceeding.

For example, you present a proposal and this person sneers and mutters, “where do you get this crap?” Stop the conversation immediately and say, “Before we move on with the discussion, I want to address what just happened. I presented my idea, and you said, “Where do you get this crap?” Did I hear that right?”

Your job in this conversation is to set a clear boundary. After confirming or disconfirming what they said, continue with, “I am fine hearing any criticism of any idea I have. Point out flaws all day long. But calling my ideas ‘crap’ is disrespectful to me. It’s not okay with me for you to simply insult either me or my ideas. Can I have your commitment to respect that?”

Be prepared for them to either resist making a commitment or to test the boundary again. If they resist, let them know what you’ll do to secure your right to respectful behavior. For example, if they say, “The problem here is that you’re weak and thin-skinned. This is how adults talk.” You can respond with, “I’ve explained what I expect. If that’s not something you can commit to, I’ll check with HR (or the boss) to see if I’m out of bounds in my expectation.”

In they test the boundary, or lapse in honoring it, the first time it happens, you must address it: “A couple of weeks ago you committed that you would never use insulting language toward me. You just called my idea BS. That’s a violation of your commitment.” Ask for them to reconfirm their commitment, then add, “It’s not my job to police your agreement. If you fail to keep it again, I’ll move to other alternatives.

Admittedly, setting and enforcing boundaries puts a lot on you. So I remind you, if what you really want is just to secure your right to dignified treatment, the first two suggestions are reasonable. If what you really want (and feel safe doing) is to handle the problem between you, it will have to take some form of setting and enforcing boundaries.

Nothing I’ve offered makes for easy answers, but in a world of flawed people, I hope this gives you a way of thinking about your options.


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3 thoughts on “How to Respond to a Workplace Bully”

  1. C. Strom

    And if the person doing the bullying is your boss, then good luck. Might as well start to look for a new job, they always win.

  2. Hanne Wulp

    What if their response to your request for a respectful way of interacting is not an insult (“You are weak-skinned, etc”), but something like: “This is just how I speak to everyone. I’m allowed to bring my whole self to work. Let’s be open-minded and respectful to everyone’s way of expressing here.”
    Or: “This is how everyone interacts nowadays (or: in this field of work). There is nothing wrong with it. It’s not personal or anything.”

  3. CB

    If you can’t have a crucial conversation, I suggest going to HR. I’ve been asked by some if they are overreacting by going to HR, and I tell them no. After they do go to HR, they find that they are the 9th person who has complained about the “bully”, so now HR has enough information to take next steps.

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