How to Talk to the Bully: Disarming Workplace Bullying
Prologue: As many of you know, when I write about bullying or trauma in general it comes from my personal well, including several years of childhood bully trauma: stricken by shame, taunted by peers but mostly stalked by my own lurking fear and helplessness, a constant struggle to concentrate, unaware of my smoldering depression, subliminal rage, and omnipresent mask. Then there was the nuclear tension and family secrets (e.g., a father's hidden fifteen years of shock therapy. In such a closeted environment, one learns to stuff all kinds of emotions, even terror, until you can't.) With the help of Army Basic Training, my Social Work graduate studies, and a lot of therapy, I survived and developed some important self-awareness and vital emotional muscles. As an adult, my bully learning lab was "hazardous duty" experience, especially doing stress, conflict, violence prevention, and team building consulting with such major government agencies as the US Postal Service, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Commerce.

The subject of bullying and animal types came up several times this week: from a divorce process involving a psychologically battering spouse and his "shark" attorney to a woman watching a friend's dog "bully" her own dog while caring for this "mad dog." (My dogie endearment term. Already fed, the guest canine would still snarl at my friend's pet while he was trying to eat. She realized her dog was hardly eating and started feeding the two in separate rooms.) My friend's household observation eventually triggered a conceptual bridge to and discussion around "bullying in the workplace." Perhaps at a later date I'll share our program development thoughts, but for now let me provide a subjective definition:

A bully is an individual who has a need to dominate others along with an extreme, self-centered craving for control, especially of others for whom they feel a sense of threat or envy.

This dominant or aggressive pattern often is cultivated by being bullied or abused in one's family or in a peer group. Of course, this environment models intimidation as a problem-solving tool of choice. And once a pattern of success is achieved through bullying, an individual may simply enjoy the power and dopamine boost of seeing others squirm under his or her literal or figurative thumb.

Conversely, bullying behavior can arise from the smoldering rage and insecurity of feeling abandoned or of being invisible in a family; or perhaps seeing oneself and being labeled as a "lower class" cultural outsider or outcast. The bully may be quick to feel insulted or disrespected. Subsequent aggressive behavior often reflects a wounded sense of self. Which, not surprisingly, leads to the following dynamic:

The bully often physically or psychologically intimidates others as a way of boosting their own vulnerable sense of self. In addition, the bully process helps to distract from their own insecurity and self-loathing or to deny a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

Here are five basic reasons why bullies have power over us:

a) Bully's Status -- they have the role, stature, and clout to inflict physical and/or psychological (including economic or career advancement) harm; to demean and diminish our social position, prestige, and power; such individuals may feel entitled to special treatment or immunity (e.g., "too big to fail" mentality); the bully also may play down his or her hostile actions and see the other as overly sensitive,

b) Superior-Subordinate Culture -- we have been raised in a family or culture that deems it wrong, bad, or disrespectful to talk back to people who are senior or in position of authority; tradition and convention are upheld on a rigid, "sacred cow" (another quiet bully animal?) pedestal. Consider the "Stress Doc's Law of the Loyalty Loop and Lock": Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer."

c) Ineffective Leadership -- especially in the workplace, but also in other educational or social settings, people in authority roles do not want to tackle the bully, whether from fear or because these individuals do not want to be bothered with the necessary "disciplinary paperwork." Such leaders do not perceive the demoralizing potential of bullying, and/or try to ignore or isolate the problematic individual; (would you downplay, disregard, or simply isolate a serious virus in your computer?). Alas, there are times when those in authority allow bullying or use the bully as overt or covert agents of aggression to send a message to the targeted individual(s), along with other team members.

d) Learned Helplessness -- our own long-standing "learned helplessness," seeing ourselves as ineffective, including gripped by high anxiety and feelings of shame; we possess limited assertive conflict-problem solving communication skills; perhaps we have had role models who too believed they possessed low self-control, or we feel disconnected from potential allies; too often, this individual sees himself as helpless in the face of victimization or not worthy of self-defense,

e) Difficulty Asking for Help -- the bullied individual may have limited access to trustworthy adults who could become coaches in his corner; more likely he is afraid and ashamed to acknowledge feelings of terror or vulnerability, especially when a family motto is, "God helps those who help themselves!" As targets, sometimes we can't conceive of people behaving in such a hostile or cruel manner and are left speechless, in a state of shock. Remember, while there may be some risk in asking for help, it usually is much less destructive on your mind-body than any imagined retribution; alas, the perceived humiliation of asking for help is only outdone by the actual agony of suffering in silence.

Confronting Bullying: Five Strategic Tools, Techniques, and Tips

Now that we have a definition of bullying and the psychosocial conditions that encourage this demeaning, power-driven, and manipulative process, our final segment... How to engage and set limits on the bully and bullying interaction:

  • Be Affirming with Realistic Expectations

  • Be Courageously Absurd and Use the Power of Metaphors

  • Announce an Intention to Bring in a Third Party

  • Facilitated Confrontation or Conflict Mediation

  • Purposefully Walk Away to Fight Another Day

  • 1. Be Affirming with Realistic Expectations. Consider these three vignettes.

    a) I recall being hired by a business owner for a technical writing project. Once again he was criticizing my effort with a condescending and dismissive tone. I finally protested, with perhaps a bit too much emotion: "I don't mind specific negative feedback but globally dismissing my work; I don't buy it." In fact, I mustered up some poise using an "I" message, not blurting out a blaming "You're just a bully." I have not worked for him since, but the absence of that gnawing, self-berating angst, that toxic voice in my head -- "Why didn't you speak up!" -- is almost priceless.

    b) Then there was a time years back when a Type A owner of a word processing company, (a former New Yawka, like myself) challenged me with, "How am I supposed to know what to do if you can't give instructions? (Definitely an attacking "you" message there.) My response was both verbal and nonverbal: While tactfully declaring, "I'm not so sure," I also straightened my posture, held up one hand, palm facing her, (this was not a signal to "talk to the hand") while slightly elevating my voice. Though verbally diplomatic, the gestalt of the message was, "That aggressive attitude and tone was not acceptable; it must stop." And she did modify her counter: "Well if there's a problem, it takes two." And certainly when I'm in a hyper mode, I can't always be sure of the airtight accuracy of my instructions. I smartly said, "I can live with that." I wanted to maintain a working relationship as she did good work; I didn't need to puncture her ego nor prove I was right.

    c) Finally, the coaching client who had been beaten down verbally and emotionally by her spouse over many years, stated her goal just before she and her soon-to-be-ex were meeting with their lawyers before a judge: "I no longer want to be intimidated by him." I immediately challenged this declaration. "That's a longer term goal. Right now you have to assemble a really competent and aggressive team, especially a battle-tested attorney, who will fight for your interests."