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How to deal with a bully at work

Aryanne Oade has worked as a chartered psychologist for more than 20 years. She coaches clients to recover from the debilitating effects of workplace bullying. Here she gives us the best strategy of dealing with the bully at work

by Psychologies

Bullies are always 100 per cent responsible for their behaviour. But, the repeated use of the wrong strategy to deal with a bully – such as avoiding and complying – can result in in you becoming stuck in a bullying dynamic.

Complying is the desire to submit as a way of getting through a challenging encounter with a bully. If you ‘submit’, often you do so in an attempt to preserve your connection with the bully. You hope that doing what the bully wants will enable you to keep the relationship as viable as possible. The desire to retain some form of connection with a workplace bully is understandable, but there is a difference between:

• Wanting to preserve a working relationship with a non-bullying, but challenging, colleague

And:

• The strategy of compliance or submission towards a workplace bully. 

The former makes complete sense, no matter how difficult it may be in practice. The latter isn’t wise. A bullying colleague is a dangerous person to want to preserve connection with. 

Avoiding is motivated by the desire to prevent potentially overwhelming levels of anxiety and fear, which result from encounters with the bully. Many of us may feel paralysed and disabled when in the presence of bully. To avoid feeling this toxic mixture of incapacity and fear you are likely to avoid situations where you will encounter the bully, and avoid confronting abusive behaviour during or after an encounter with the bully. 

Every time the bully’s aggressive behaviour goes unchallenged, they receive the message that they can continue to attack as and when they want to, and there will be no consequences for them to deal with. For many of targets, the fear of confronting is actually a fear that, if they do confront, the bully will retaliate even more powerfully and destroy them. And it is quite true that an ineffective, emotional confrontation won’t go well for many of us, because a skilled bully will hear the wobble in your voice and turn your emotion back onto you. 

Avoidance and compliance have their place as strategies for dealing with workplace bullying – but only in the short term as one-off methods of managing the surprise and shock of being bullied. If they become established ways in which the target handles the bully they become counter-productive, making it straightforward for the bully to carry on bullying.

However, the good news is that a skilled, clean and clear confrontation will alter the bullying dynamic at the time of an attack. A skilful rejoinder results in the bully going onto the back foot, and the balance of power between you and the bully alters in the favour of you. Learning how to confront safely and skilfully is a key goal for people vulnerable to workplace bullying. 

It’s about identifying the choices you have, behaviourally, verbally and intellectually, which at the moment of attack, changes the balance of power. As soon as it’s altered once, the bully is wrong-footed and you can regain some of your power, self-control and self-belief.

For example, if the bully says to you: ‘That report that you wrote was absolutely rubbish.’ This is a fuzzy, unclear, general criticism. In this example, let’s imagine the report was OK – maybe not perfect, but certainly good enough, and you might find yourself saying: ‘Oh sorry, can you tell me what’s wrong with it?’ And what they’ve done is open the door for the next piece of abuse from the bully: unjust, unfair, and undermining.

A better response would be to say: ‘Ok, what I just heard is that you think my work is really poor. So what I’d like you do to is write down your criticisms of it and then you, me and my manager can discuss them.’ Now, most bullies won’t take up that challenge because the point of the criticism wasn’t that the report was wholly inadequate, but was simply to undermine your self-esteem. If you make it clear that you are not affected by the bully’s statement, and instead hold the bully responsible for what they said, the dynamic is changed completely and the bully gets the message the tactic of undermining doesn’t work.

 For more tips:

• Access free downloads on how to recover from and combat workplace bullying from oadeassociates.com/downloads

• Participate in the four-part webinar Moving On from Workplace Bullying  at oadeassociates.com/webinars

• Read Free Yourself from Workplace Bullying: Become Bully-Proof and Regain Control of Your Life (Mint Hall Publishing, £21.99)

Photograph: Getty Images

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