Chances are, if you’ve worked or volunteered on a team, you’ve witnessed someone being bullied (or been on the receiving end of it). Criticism is a normal part of work life but criticism meant to intimidate, humiliate, or single someone out without reason is considered bullying. The Muse defines it as “a repeated health harming mistreatment of one or more people. It includes verbal abuse, intimidating, threatening or humiliating the target. It can, and often does, interfere with the target’s ability to get their work done.” When bullying happens, it throws us off. Our brains go haywire because it’s unexpected and typically we’re unsure how to respond. According to The Balance, more men (70%) are bullies and women are the most frequent targets of bullies (60%). Female bullies most often target other women (80%). And if you think you’re off the hook because of working remotely, bullying has actually increased from 30% to 47% during virtual meetings in 2020 according to the Workplace Bullying Institute.
A few years ago, a friend told me about an unsettling meeting she’d had with her manager and team. The discussion was about how their compensation was structured. The conversation wasn’t about salary - it was focused on how people were incentivized. Her new manager didn’t understand why a salesperson would push revenue to a month where they needed to achieve their number. As my friend started to explain why it’s beneficial for a salesperson to move revenue to a different month (hint: they get paid more), he became extremely agitated. He threw up his hand in her face and yelled, “I did not give you permission to speak!” What? Everyone was stunned and silent. She asked to speak to him privately after the meeting and never reported him to his boss. Why? She was 54 and was concerned about being retaliated against by him and she was concerned about finding another full time job. She knew his behavior had more to do with control and a sense of power than anything she said. She learned some valuable lessons that day. Here are three tips on how to respond.
- Take a Meta Moment: Pause and don’t respond at all - even if your heart is racing. When you DO decide to respond, do so in a calm manner. This not only reflects how rational you are - but it also tends to highlight how irrational the other person is being.
- Confront it Privately or Report It: My friend addressed it immediately and asked to meet him privately. Although she didn’t feel reporting his behavior would help her in any way, asking him directly why he reacted that way felt empowering. Taking this action also set a boundary so he wouldn’t verbally harass her again (and he didn’t). At the time, she felt reporting it to the HR department or to his boss would have exacerbated the situation. Whatever you decide, do something instead of nothing. If you don’t say anything, the power imbalance and bullying behavior will continue. The Muse suggested the following ways to address it:
- Call attention to their values: Try “I know that you really care about everyone feeling valued, and when you do X, it undermines that intention. Maybe we could try Y in the future?
- Explain why it’s a problem: Try “I notice you X, and when you do that it makes it hard for us to foster a team environment.”
- Say their name a lot: “John, I hear what you are saying but John, I need you to stop doing X. I treat you with respect, John, and I need you to do the same.”
Side Note: Some people have questioned whether or not his behavior was legally actionable. It wasn’t. The law does not require that your boss or coworkers be nice or fair. But such harassment might be illegal if the harassment is based on an illegal reason or motive. It’s only if you can prove that the person singled you out because of age, gender or race that it would be actionable. This could be changing, however, with the Healthy Workplace Bill.
- Compassion Builds Resilience: One thing that helped her get through the hostile encounter was compassion. She thought, “Wow. Something is really off with this individual. Maybe his wife asked for a divorce right before the meeting or maybe he learned he has cancer.” It sounds funny but it was her way of reframing the situation because she knew it was about his own mental state and low EQ. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review “One of the most overlooked aspects of a resilience skill set is the ability to cultivate compassion — both self-compassion and compassion for others. According to research cited by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, compassion increases positive emotions, creates positive work relationships, and increases cooperation and collaboration. . .Compassion and business effectiveness are not mutually exclusive. Rather, individual, team and organizational success rely on a compassionate work culture.”
So if it happens, pause, address it and then reframe it. A few months later, that manager was fired. While it would be great if all bullies experienced the same fate, it’s always good to build resilience and be armed with different ways to respond.
Reviewed & Recommended:
Workplace Bullying: How to Identify and Manage Bullying
How to Deal With a Bully in the Workplace
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Emily’s vision for illume hire developed as part of her journey from a startup-curious sales and media professional to co-founder and CEO. Her passion is to provide resources to support professionals with 20+ years experience. Emily was part of the founding leadership team of Age Equity Alliance, a non-profit focused on the benefits of an intergenerational team.