How to defeat workplace bullies

Bullying is a problem in the workplace.

According to a recent survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, nearly 37 million U.S. workers faced “abusive conduct” at work, while another 29 million workers witnessed it.

Bullying — defined as psychological violence in the form of verbal bullying (ridiculing, insulting, name-calling, or slandering), physical bullying (pushing, shoving, kicking, or tripping), or situational bullying (sabotage or deliberate humiliation) — represents a problem that impacts us all.

What can be done?

According to Dr. Lynne Curry, author of Beating the Workplace Bully and founding partner of the management consulting firm The Growth Company, “Those of us targeted by or witnessing bullying can stop bullies in their tracks.”

How you came to be bullied

Curry suggests you start by realizing how you came to be bullied.

“Was it simple bad luck that you were in a bully’s way or had something the bully wanted, or did you ignore warning signs or signal in some way that you were an easy target?”

Common warning signs

There are common warning signs you need to notice, such as a bully cutting you down, treating you poorly, or making you feel you’re in the wrong or that you need to walk on eggshells.

“Individuals can bully without being a bully,” Curry says. “What distinguishes a bully from someone with normal bad behavior is that a bully engages in intentional repeated bullying behavior. “

Recognize bully types

Bullies come in several types:

  • The angry, aggressive jerk
  • The wounded rhino
  • The scorched earth fighter
  • The character assassin
  • The silent grenade
  • The shape-shifter
  • The narcissist

We’re most familiar with the angry, aggressive jerk who demeans, belittles and insults others.

While the mean-spirited wounded rhino seeks to dominate, the cutthroat scorched earth fighter bully pulls out all the stops when he bullies you, because it’s not enough that he wins, he needs you to lose.

The character assassin defames you, and the silent grenade rules your work life because you fear he’ll explode in unstoppable rage.

The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde shape-shifter charms the boss and subtly takes out those who get in his way.

The narcissist lives according to “me, only me” and harms others without remorse because (s)he feel entitled to play by his/her own rules.

Could you meet a bully who combines several of these types? Absolutely.

If you’re bullied

If you’re bullied, says Curry, “The solution starts with you. Never let a bully gain an outpost in your mind. Instead, assess what’s going on. Decide whether you’ll allow the bully to treat you this way, and if not, how you’ll handle it.”

Curry’s book teaches those targeted by bullying to “step into their power, uproot old habits with new actions, confront mental manipulation, and rehearse new behaviors.”

Does the bully feel bad about hurting you?

“Bullies don’t feel bad about hurting others,” says Curry. “They lack respect for those they view as vulnerable and rationalize their behavior because their targets ‘deserved it.’”

Bully bosses and employees

Learn the special strategies for handling bully bosses and employees.

“If you work for a bully boss,” says Curry, “see him for who he is, know your legal rights, and never go toe-to-toe with him.”

If you supervise a bully employee, “realize that he feels justified in creating uproar and distorting your actions and words.”

What can leaders and HR professionals do to combat bullying?

Curry recommends that business leaders realize they may not see bullies, because bullies “kiss up and kick down.”

A leader who wants to create a bully-free environment needs to define a policy, implement it, and create a confidential grievance channel. Provide supervisors with training to recognize bullying problems and provide behavior-changing training for targets and bullies. Ensure that HR professionals investigate allegations of bullying and directly intervene if there is substantial evidence.