Work place bully? You can hold your ground

Lumbergh’s a purveyor of the blandest cruelty possible. He is despicable, smug and downright unpleasant.

Movies are full of Lumberghs aka arseholes (onward referred to as AH). Unfortunately, AHs are ever present in reality. They have a clear lack of respect for boundaries. They intimidate and harm others, repeatedly over time. AHs often feel threatened by others, they might feel weak and insecure. Sometimes they desire to get a competitive edge over so-perceived limited resources. Often a more powerful individual attacks a less powerful one.

Bullying is a well-known term to describe those types of behaviors. Bullying is bad for everyone involved. In fact, already looking at youth, both bullies and victims of bullying have a raised incidence of suicide attempts. Both perpetrator and victim are at particular risk of psychological distress: anxiety, low self-esteem and depression.

Toxic physical stress literally ‘gets under the skin’ as it raises inflammation levels. It is the number one cause of job absenteeism. The exception are psychopaths who show up as bullies – they will not experience any stress but derive pleasure from inflicting pain on others. About a quarter of all bullying in organizations can be traced back to corporate psychopaths.

Nobody likes an AH, so why do they survive in organizations? According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 70 percent of today’s workforce has been exposed to bullying. And why do we enable or even get a kick out of AHs? After all, we could be the next victim. Social media makes it even easier to attack someone without a ‘real trace of blood’. It can be fairly easy to be a bully when you can hide behind a screen.

So how can you deal if you have an AH in your ranks? Given this is such a common source of stress, Stanford’s Richard Sutton has launched a bestseller with his book “The Asshole Survival Guide”. It is an interesting read and offers some good tips on how to manage this dilemma. However, while quite insightful, it is not a silver bullet when it comes to dealing with AHs. Toxic situations are often very unique to the individual and their context. This in turn will determine what strategies and tactics are most effective.

Here some thoughts for you to consider:

Step 1: Self-awareness first.

We often have knee-jerk reactions when we suspect someone to be an AH. But before we react, we have to ask ourselves the following mortifying question: who is really the AH here? It may not be the other party after all. Or it may be the two of you. Research tells us that we tend to inflate our own abilities and downplay our faults. We are quick to label others as the problem. In challenging situations, start with asking questions, be curious, and understand more of the context and what drives another’s behavior. Consider this: “Be slow to label others as assholes, be quick to label yourself as one.”

Step 2: Remain curious.

Let’s assume your assessment confirms that you are not at fault for the current dilemma. What now? Whether you should act, according to Professor Sutton, depends on your answer to the following questions:

  • How long does the bullying last?
  • Is he/she a temporary or a permanent AH?
  • How much power do they have?
  • Is it one or are there many?
  • How much are you suffering?

If the dilemma seems to last for a while, you are looking at a permanent AH, possibly with power, and he/she is causing you significant stress, there are some ‘flight, freeze or fight’ tactics that you might find useful.

And as you contemplate your next step, important is to target the AH, not the team or organization as a whole. Radical and general actions such as withdrawing from work altogether, reducing your visibility or slacking off in your deliverables is bound to result in self-sabotage and play into the hands of the toxic individual.

Step 3: Act.

Option ‘Flight’: Create distance.

*Minimize time with problem people. Keep interactions as short as possible, slow down the rhythm of interactions.

*Stick to the facts, keep it logical. Communication should be fact based. Trying to connect or even reason with toxic people has a high chance that it will derail.

*Deflect, focus on them in conversations. Change the topic if they try to put the attention on you. This way you avoid being the target for any manipulative tactics.

*Distance yourself physically. If you can, get 150 feet (45m) away from them. It is almost like you are in another country.  If toxic people are within 25 feet or less, the odds go up that you will also become toxic and are more likely to get fired.

*Create a distraction. Plan the interaction around a recreational activity, one that keeps them busy and occupied.

Option ‘Freeze’: Protect yourself emotionally.

*Find ways to emotionally distance yourself.  If it is someone you feel close to, resist the temptation to save that person. Consider looking at this from an angle of the future, such as “how will I feel about this 10 minutes/10 months/10 years from now”?

*Get support. Collude with others, possibly with someone who has previously been the victim of the toxic individual. Realize that you are not alone, you can turn to peers, family and friends for support.  If there is no one in that very moment, think about what you would tell your best friend, what advice you would give. Then take this advice and use it on yourself.

*Learn how to reframe the situation, a technique often used in cognitive behavioral therapy. The more you can change the definition of the situation, depersonalize it (“he is the problem, not me”), the less will it upset you.

*Adopt a learner mindset: what can I learn about this? Especially if you are someone who needs to understand something to process it, this tactic can be very useful. Google toxic behaviors you are exposed to (i.e. stonewalling, contempt) and explore publicly available advice on how to deal with it.

*As they go low, go high. See if you can find sympathy for the devil. Try to see them for what they really are: weak, insecure, often victims themselves.

Option ‘Fight’: Take back control.

If the AH is Machiavellian, often the best approach is to stand up, step up and speak up.

*Use the ‘velvet hammer’ and address them in a direct but respectful fashion. It is a thin line between assertiveness and aggression, but staying respectful works like a charm.

*Connect with your values, to what matters to you. Setting boundaries involves tolerating the uncomfortable feelings that often accompanies that. You may encounter anger, disappointment or retaliation from the other party. Not surprisingly, it can be scary to speak up. Reminding ourselves of our purpose, of our own value or that for what we stand for strengthens backbone.  You might even create your own mantra around this such as “I am enough” or “People first”.

*Document everything. While there are some jurisdictions where this is illegal, many do allow for this option. Record them, keep records of emails, phone calls etc. It may be very useful, should the dispute become elevated.

*Love bomb them. Turn haters into friends. I have a colleague who is an absolute pro when it comes to turning skeptic clients into devoted fans. One of her techniques is to shower them with attention and to be fully tuned into their needs.

*Have them accept your favors or accept their favors, assuming it feels ethical. Psychologically, due the concept of cognitive dissonance, we are programmed to perceive people who we exchange favors with as being in ‘our camp’.

*Use humor. Humor reduces social distance between people, it makes us seem more approachable, supportive and reduces stress. If you are witty, why not use that to your advantage? Make them laugh. When Abe Lincoln was aggressed by a bully who accused him of being ‘two-faced’, his response was “If I had two faces, do you really think I would chose wearing this one?”

Final food for thought

I don’t believe, however, that the burden of stopping an AH or bully should be the burden of the victim alone. It is not enough to ask the bullied person to step up and be courageous. All of us need to take responsibility. We need to build powerful coalitions around a victim to make progress. Leaders in organizations need to promote and reinforce a ‘no asshole rule’.  There needs to be awareness, dialog and support as well as accountability.

In this context I am also thinking of those of us who are parents/uncles/grandmothers/family friends, responsible for raising the future generation. A 2012 research study by the Journal of Cybertherapy and Rehabilitation showed that both a lackadaisical (permissive, lack of boundaries) as well as an authoritarian (harsh, punitive) parenting style breed future bullies. While the two styles are seemingly on opposite spectrums, both lack a respect for rules and for the rights of others, essentially what characterizes AH behavior.

So as grown ups, either directly or indirectly, modeling a facilitative, warm and responsive style and providing appropriate levels of autonomy, is where we need to start. If you do not wish to raise a bully, don’t bully your own kids.