Bullying is not just a problem for kids in school. It is a problem for working adults too. It would be nice if everyone would grow up and mature and be nice to each other. But that isn’t what happens. Kids who bully in school often grow up to become workplace bullies.
There is a reason for that. Workplace bullies bully because it works. Intimidating other people works. It isn’t nice and it doesn’t lead to good decisions being made. But it does work if what you seek is power. Because that is what bullying is. The definition of bullying is any interaction that exploits a perceived or real power difference to gain an advantage.
The reason school yard bullies become workplace bullies is because bullying is the way they learned how to get what they want. It isn’t fair. They should be nicer, but complaining about how unfair it is and how rude they are won’t solve the problem. Bullies bully because it works for them. They aren’t much interested in the impact they are having on others so appealing to their better angels isn’t going to work either.
So what does work? Removing the perceived or real power difference and at the same time, eliminating the rewarded power or status received by the bully as a result of their bad behavior. In other words, arrange things so bullying doesn’t work for the bully.
The good news is that this is fairly easy to do if you know what to say and how to say it. Your goal is to respond to the intimidation of a bully by not being intimidated. If they can’t intimidate you they can’t create or exploit a perceived power difference because there won’t be one to exploit.
To show the bully you aren’t intimidated, you have to speak and act in a way that shows them you aren’t scared. You must respond to them in a bored tone of voice whenever they attempt to bully you or anyone else. You must also stand as straight as possible and look them in the eye when you speak to them if at all possible. If you are incapable of looking into their eyes for whatever reason, practice looking past people’s ear or at the ceiling. Just don’t look down, that is a sign of submissiveness.
You will need two catch phrases you can use to provide a consistent response to the bully’s bad behavior. The first one is for when they try to intimidate you. The other is for when you witness them trying to intimidate someone else.
• My favorite phrase to use when someone says something mean or demeaning to me is “Thank you very much for that information. It’s very helpful.” This works for cyber bullies as well as it does for the ones you encounter in real life. It isn’t rude. It acknowledges what was said. It also signals that you aren’t bothered by what was said. That is, ultimately, what you want a workplace bully to learn.
• My favorite phrase to use when I witness someone being mean to another person is to say, “That wasn’t a very nice thing to do. You should apologize.” Again, this is said in a matter a fact, bored tone of voice. You aren’t being mean. You aren’t upset with them. You just expect people to behave as rational, reasonable and respectful adults. This will put the bully on notice that their bad behavior won’t be tolerated anymore and that they should choose better tactics.
The key to pulling this off successfully is to practice saying your catch phrases at home in as bored a voice as possible. Have a friend practice with you if necessary. That way the words will roll off your tongue effortlessly when you really need them.
You also need to employ these catch phrases every single time you are a victim or witness someone else being a victim. In order to get a bully to stop, you must eliminate all their rewards. Consistency is key.
Finally, you should expect the bully to respond poorly to this approach. At first, they will seem confused. But once they realize that the strategy they have used since childhood to get what they want isn’t working anymore, they are likely to escalate their bad behavior. I realize this is an unpleasant thought, but it is a realistic one and you shouldn’t allow the threat of escalation of bad behavior stop you from doing what is right.
The good news is that if you expect it, it won’t catch you off guard when it happens. The other good news is that if and when the bully escalates their bad behavior, they are likely to draw the attention of the higher level managers who aren’t likely to appreciate the poor attitude and interpersonal skills of the bully.
There is no reason to fear or be intimidated by a workplace bully. They are a human being just like you and they are only doing what they learned works. By using the right words and a healthy dose of compassion, you can arm yourself effectively. Practice your words so that you can say them easily. Then, all you have to do is respond consistently to the workplace bully until they learn how to behave better.