Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 5;   February 3, 2010: Confronting the Workplace Bully: I

Confronting the Workplace Bully: I

by

When a bully targets you, you have three options: accept the abuse; avoid the bully or escape; and confront or fight back. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
The U.S. Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Connecticut

The U.S. Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Connecticut, where Leona Helmsley, also known as "The Queen of Mean," served for 18 months on several charges related to tax fraud. A notorious workplace bully, stories of her abusive exploits abound. Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz tells one story, retold in Stacy Conradt's Mental Floss blog post, "6 Tyrannical Bosses Far Worse Than Yours": "Lawyer Alan Dershowitz said he once had breakfast with Leona at one of the Helmsley hotels and the waiter brought him a cup of tea with a tiny bit of water spilled on the saucer. Alan says Leona grabbed the cup from him and smashed it on the floor, then demanded that the waiter get down on his hands and knees and beg for his job." Helmsley's bullying ways were never considered grounds for criminal charges, but it's certainly possible that they contributed to the public's motivation and acceptance of the legal action against her. We can all hope that someday behavior like this will be widely regarded as criminal, and people engaging in such acts will be subject to criminal prosecution. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

It's easy to find studies of workplace bullies — classifying them, measuring their prevalence, describing their tactics, and estimating their cost to employers. It's more difficult to learn how to cope with bullies. So let's look at that: you're targeted. Now what?

Some recommend reasoning with bullies, using approaches similar to those used for ordinary conflict. I don't advise this. Bullying is not about ordinary conflict between two people. Bullying is abuse. Bullying is the exercise of power to inflict pain and suffering. Bullies do not adjust their behavior on the basis of negotiation.

The two most effective strategies for dealing with a bully who has targeted you are Fight and Flight. In the Fight strategy, you engage with or confront the bully, possibly with the assistance of higher authority. In the Flight strategy, you avoid the bully, or leave the organization. If you can't adopt either of these strategies, Misery is your fate, until the bully chooses another target. Since misery is unacceptable, let's look more closely at Fight first. We'll examine Flight in future issues.

Here are three tips for preparing to confront workplace bullies successfully.

Know your capabilities
Bullies are experts at finding targets who won't fight back. If you've been targeted, the bully probably believes that you either can't or won't fight back.
If you're unsure about prevailing in a confrontation, don't attempt confrontation; learn how to confront first. You'll probably need help. Find a coach or adviser, or seek intervention by a higher authority. Probe your network for any information about the bully that will help you in confronting the bully. Take care though: most officials at work believe they owe their first loyalty to your employer. Their loyalty to you is usually second.
Know what you're willing to do
If the bully believes that you're unwilling to fight back, and if you really are unwilling to fight back, deal with that reluctance first. If you choose to confront the bully, and the suite of tactics acceptable to you is limited, you can be certain that the bully will act so as to test your limits.
Successful confrontation with a bully might require some relaxation of your constraints. Either learn to relax those constraints, or learn to avoid triggering them. Once the confrontation begins, the bully will surely test your constraints.
Know the law
With regard If the bully believes that
you're unwilling to fight
back, and if you really are
unwilling to fight back,
deal with that
reluctance first
to bullies, legal protections in most jurisdictions are usually limited to physical acts — assaults and battery — though some jurisdictions do also provide protection from harassment. If you fight back with legal action against either the bully or your employer, you'll need willing witnesses and evidence.
Witnesses can be difficult to find, because testifying often entails risk of losing one's job. Recordings (video or audio) are helpful if you can create them in a manner that makes them admissible as evidence.

In Part II, we'll examine strategies directly related to actual confrontation.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Confronting the Workplace Bully: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesIs a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!

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Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

Gregory B. Jaczko, the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).When the Chair Is a Bully: I
Most meetings have chairs or "leads." Although the expression that the chair "owns" the meeting is usually innocent shorthand, some chairs actually believe that they own the meeting. This view is almost entirely destructive. What are the consequences of this attitude, and what can we do about it?
A bullying managerEven "Isolated Incidents" Can Be Bullying
Many organizations have anti-bullying policies that address only repeated patterns of interpersonal aggression. Such definitions expose the organization and its people to the harmful effects of "isolated incidents" of interpersonal aggression, because even isolated incidents can be bullying.
Disappointment that has escalated through frustration and possibly to angerAnticipatory Disappointment at Work
Disappointment is usually unpleasant, and sometimes benign. But when it occurs before we have evidence of bad news — when it is anticipatory — disappointment can be unnecessary and expensive. What is anticipatory disappointment? What are the risks?
Oakland Coliseum, home field of the Oakland A'sWe Can 'Moneyball' Bullying
Capturing data about incidents of bullying is helpful in creating awareness of the problem. But it's like trying to drive a car by looking only in the rearview mirror. Forward-looking data that predicts bullying incidents is also necessary.
"Approaching the fowl with stalking-horse", an 1875 illustration of a cut-out horse shape used in huntingBullying by Proxy: II
Bullying by proxy occurs when A bullies B at the behest of C. Organizational control of bullying by proxy is difficult, in part, because C's contribution is covert. Policies that control overt bullying are less effective at controlling bullying by proxy.

See also Workplace Bullying and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeComing May 29: Rescheduling: Project Factors
Rescheduling is what we do when we can no longer honor the schedule we have now. Of all causes of rescheduling, the more controllable are those found at the project level. Attending to them in one project can limit their effects on other projects. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
A switch in the tracks of a city tramwayAnd on June 5: The Reactive Rescheduling Cycle
When the current schedule is no longer viable, we reschedule. But rescheduling is unlike devising a schedule before work has begun. People know that we're "behind" and taking time to reschedule only makes things worse. Political pressure doesn't help. Available here and by RSS on June 5.

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