Tools to End Workplace Bullying

Tools to End Workplace Bullying

04/14/16 Laura Gibbons

Before we explore workplace bullying and how to deal with it, it is important to clear up any misunderstandings you or others might have about it. In the case of workplace bullying, knowledge is power.

Myths about Workplace Bullying Debunked

There is no such thing as workplace bullying. When we think about “workplace bullying,” most of us think about the schoolyard and not about the workplace. However, workplace bullying is very real, and its destructive effects are also very real. Should anyone try to tell you that you are not being bullied because, in their mind, that’s not something that happens to adults at work, tell them that 20+ years of research on workplace bullying says otherwise. Research has indicated that 50% of the population is being bullied, and in some cases even as much as 75%. The Workplace Bullying Institute has found that bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal forms of discrimination. Bullying is NOT illegal by the way. All of these numbers point to one thing: bullying at work is real and it’s widespread.

Bullying is no big deal. Research has associated bullying with many psychological problems, including feeling helpless, decreased self-esteem, poor morale, feelings of inadequacy, depression, and conflict with co-workers and family as a result of what’s happening at work. Bullying can also lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and even suicide. This points to one thing: bullying is a big deal, and it hurts.

Bullying is just a personality conflict between two people. A personality conflict occurs when two people disagree on something. It affects primarily – and sometimes exclusively – those two individuals. Bullying, on the other hand, affects the employees, co-workers, the workplace, and its leaders. Unfortunately most of the time managers do nothing to help – or they are the ones bullying employees – hence targets and bystanders lose respect for them, which drives down the quality of work. To create a healthy work environment, managers need the direction and support of the organization’s top leaders.

This points to one thing: ignoring bullying creates an atmosphere in which it thrives. “Hey, if this guy did it and got away with it why shouldn’t I?”

Targets have a performance issue and are accusing their boss of being too tough. Unfortunately, this is the belief of many human resource managers who refuse to see what’s really happening, or don’t understand the nature of workplace bullying. It would be a lie to say that targets of workplace bullying are never poor performers, but there is an appropriate way of confronting poor performance (including contacting the EAP), and there is an unacceptable, and bullying way of dealing with poor performance. This points to one thing: Bullying bosses yell and get frustrated when someone isn’t working up to their standards. This is ineffective and not beneficial to anyone, including the company.

Tools to End Bullying

This section describes some practical strategies that a target should find useful when dealing with his or her nemesis.

Acknowledge and name the problem. The first step in dealing with aggressive and damaging behavior in the workplace is to acknowledge that there is a problem and give it a name. Some people feel that “bullying” is a childish name and are reluctant to use it in describing adult behaviors. The bottom line is, however, that it is important to give the behaviors a name; and since we are dealing with actions that are intended to humiliate, belittle, manipulate, or intimidate others, “bullying” is the perfect (and widely accepted) term to describe them collectively. Finding the language to describe your situation is important because language allows you to understand what is really going on. This is an important first step in the process of overcoming bullying at work.

Confront the individual. A word of caution: Confronting an aggressive person can backfire. The bully may see this as an attack and increase the abusive behavior. If you confront this person in front of others it may be seen as disrespectful, but if you do it one-on-one you do not have any witnesses. So confront, do so assertively, but avoid blaming or finger-pointing. Stay calm; be professional. If the other person responds with aggression, say, “Jim, I’m not here to argue. I just want you to stop _____ (insert unwanted behavior here). I treat you with respect, and I expect the same from you. Jim, starting today, please refrain from ___________”

Notice several things here: We’ve used the individual’s name several times. Using a person’s first name is a form of assertiveness. It puts a person on the spot and usually gets the individual to take notice and actually listen. (Think about the old trick parents use when they catch their children doing something wrong: They call them by their first, middle, and last name because it gets their attention and implies dominance. The same thing applies here).

Avoid name-calling. Even though it is important to recognize what’s going on – you are being bullied at work – it is also vital to understand that you are facing a human being who is not a bully but rather a person adopting bullying behaviors. Saying, “he is a bully” actually gives the individual more power over you because in your mind you are accepting that you are facing a person whose every interaction with you will be negative. “He is bullying me” is a subtle but powerful shift in your situation. Now you have made the claim that this person is demonstrating an undesired behavior, and you can perhaps change it. You might think, “Who cares how I say it! He makes me feel bad, I’m stressed and scared!” But these language nuances are part of the first steps in taking control of how you are treated at work.

Focus on yourself and your actions, not on the bullying. We tend to focus a lot on bullies when we are being harassed by them, almost obsessively in some cases. This is allowing the bully to win because instead of focusing on how to overcome bullying, you are spending too much time on how bad this individual makes you feel. Try to focus on yourself, your work, your own behavior, and how well you’re doing. Make a conscious choice to push the bullying out of your mind. It’s easy to say that our thoughts and emotions are not a choice, but that isn’t true. You have control over what you think about; what you think about does not have control over you. Understanding that will help take control of how you feel, and you’ll be able to face your bullying co-worker.

Take control of your response to the bullying behavior. Remain professional, do a great job all of the time, and disregard attempts to bring you down. You deserve respect in your workplace, but you are responsible for garnering that respect and for projecting a confident and “don’t screw with me” image to everyone around you. That means you should command respect for your work and professionalism while at the same time treating everyone the same way, including the person bullying you. Consider the story of a man whose airplane was shot down during a deployment. For three days he floated in the ocean, and he had two options; succumb to his circumstances and think about dying, or focus his thoughts on survival. He chose to think about living, and he was eventually rescued. He claims he is a much better person as a result of this experience. He is more positive, a better leader, and more appreciative of his life. Had he thought about dying, the outcome would’ve been different. He likely could have talked himself into giving up and may have died before he was rescued. Rather than being more positive, he would’ve been negative and unhappy, and possibly even suffered from PTSD. Remember, you can’t always control other people or the situation you’re in, but you do have control over your thoughts and your reactions.

Use “you” language. Assertiveness experts usually say that you’re supposed to use “I” language such as, “I don’t like it when you use that tone of voice with me.” But that doesn’t tend to work with bullies. Their attitude is, “I don’t care if you don’t like my tone!” Or they’ll launch a more aggressive attack to get you to back off with something like, “Stop being so dramatic!” So instead of, “I don’t like the way you treat me” as you might normally say, try, “You need to work on treating others more professionally.” This makes the person accountable for his/her own actions. One word of warning: Avoid passing judgment. Saying something like, “You are crazy” does not hold a bully accountable; it only fuels the fire.

Deflect criticism. Criticism hurts, but while we can’t control over the person doing the criticizing, we do have control over how we react. We can learn how to avoid “taking it in” or allowing it to become a part of how you view yourself. When this person has gone on a criticizing rampage, chances are everyone has just stood there and taken it. You, on the other hand, can break this cycle by asking questions. Specifically, ask questions that seek more information about the issue and force the critical person to come up with a goal. A conversion might go something like this: Criticizer: “You keep doing that report wrong! How is it that you keep passing the employee evaluations year after year?! I can’t be the only one who thinks you’re an idiot.” You: “I assume the goal is to have the report done right. Calling me names is not going to help. Tell me exactly what I am doing wrong, mistake by mistake, and that way future reports will be up to your standards. I’m not asking you to do my job but to make it clear what you need me to do differently.”

By Catherine Mattice (published in the April 2016 EA Report Brown Bagger in the Employee Assistance Report)

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