Workplace Bullies – Should You Ignore the Behavior?


Oftentimes suggestions on how to handle bullying include something like this:

Ignore the bully. Bullies are looking for a reaction and lose interest if they are not given the satisfaction of getting one.

But this advice is ill advised. It feels intuitively right, which is why we see it suggested, but it is not grounded in wisdom, experience or research.

Many years ago I was working on a research project to assess the incidence and prevalence of sexual harassment. I had the opportunity to ask some open-ended questions about harassment including asking women who reported being harassed:

How did you respond to the harassment?

Harassment targets indicated they would say nothing and just turn a cold shoulder or give a cold stare believing these actions would send a clear message that they were not interested in the harasser and would stop the harassment because the harasser was not getting what he wanted- attention.

When I asked men what 'doing nothing', 'turn a cold shoulder', or 'give a cold stare' mean, they reported that it was consent. They saw silence as an invitation, silence as agreement, and silence as welcome. They were getting their reaction!

What is clear here is the absolute difference in interpretation of the same behavior. Victims believed silence was golden. Harassers believed silence was all the attention required to proceed.

So, what to keep in mind is DOING NOTHING DOES NOT STOP UNWANTED BEHAVIOR be it harassment or bullying.

So, the next time you are being bullied, think about the paradox of silence. It feels like the right action but it does not stop the bully.

The real cause of silence is we do not want to make things worse and we do not know what to say that will make things better.

Granted, speaking up may not stop the bully but at least you will not feel abused or vulnerable and you will not pay the terrible price of having your health, well being, confidence, and life so damaged.

Using your voice is what makes sense when it comes to bullies. Here are four suggestions for taking back your life and dignity.

1. Ask the bully to repeat what was just said. It points out the behavior without judging or condemning. Getting into a catfight with a bully gets you now. 'Excuse me, I did not quite get that, would you mind repeating it?'

2. Ask the bully what he / she meant by what was said. This forces the bully to stand by his / her words and pay attention. 'I am not sure what you mean by that, could you explain.'

3. Ask the bully what he meant by any particular behavior. This challenges the bully to pay attention to their non-verbal behaviors. 'Hmm, you do not seem to be taken with my comment, do you have something you wish to say about it? I would like to hear it. '

4. Ask the bully to provide the information you need to complete the project. Calling out the bully is the last thing he / she expects and it's time to shake up their world. 'Excuse me I see we have a deadline looming on the Johnson project, and I do not have the final data. I'll just follow you to your office so I can pick it up. ' (It's helpful to do this in public. The bully may try to ridicule you I front of others but it will be known that you have not been given the info you need.)

The point of these 4 suggestions is to make public and make known that you are aware of what is being said and done and that you are willing to respond to it.

These are suggestions that help you figure out if you have a tiger by the tail or a wrinkened kitty cat.

Suggestion # 5 is one I do not need to recommend but it is one of my favorites as it is a straightforward counter attack, it did work for one person I know.

Nancy was a legal secretary, new to her position at a major law firm. One of the named partners quickly targeted her for bullying. She responded to the bullying with this challenge:

'Listen, if you want to take this outside, we can do so, otherwise quit trying to bully me and let me get back to work.'

This bully backed off and never tried to push her around again. Bullies who respond to this 'push back' are the ones I call Tiger / Kitty bullies.

Tiger kitties do not believe they will be confronted because they like like tigers but in truth they're kitties afraid of every noise and run like heck at the first growl.

Be sure to review these steps and commit your script to memory. Without your roadmap, you could end up with a tiger by the tail.