It’s Monday. You try to be grateful for the new week ahead, but your efforts don’t relieve the nausea you feel. #WorkProbs: Her scowling face is all you see as you drag your feet out of bed and firmly plant them on the floor.
You replay, for the thousandth time, the tirade she directed your way Friday. You had just pitched an idea that required hours of blood, sweat and tears. You remember feeling your face turning red as you tried to maintain composure in front of your peers.
You anticipate potential landmines for the day to come. Maybe she’ll exclude you from an important meeting, leave you out of a critical email chain, or whisper to your peers just loudly enough to intensify your fear.
Experts say that bullying behavior unnecessarily raises stress levels, demotivates workers and decreases productivity. This information is what prompted us to probe for insights into our most burning questions about how to handle bullying. The answers we uncovered demonstrate that while bullying is disempowering, your response doesn’t have to be. Read on.
What does bullying look like?
Joan Kingsley, psychotherapist and author of “The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform your Business Culture,” distinguishes a bully from a difficult person. “A difficult person may irritate you but isn’t really bullying you,” Kingsley says. “A bully dictates and antagonizes. It can be being secretive, like whispering. It could also look like being left out of meeting and email chains, or being forced to take notes in a meeting.”
Are there differences between how women and men handle bullying and why?
Dr. A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, FL, answers this question with a resounding ‘Yes.’ “In general they do respond differently. Women have a tendency to internalize. This creates anxiety and depression. Men are more likely to talk things out and confront their bully. It’s definitely a challenge for women. They do have a tendency to avoid, avoid, avoid.”
There also tends to be a difference in the way they bully. “Men tend to be more out there,” Kingsley says. “Women tend to be secretly aggressive.
“You tend to feel more powerless when a woman is bullying. There’s an idea that women are nurturing caregivers so it feels cutting and cruel. We have different hormones, and our emotions are much more easily tapped into than men’s. Men develop strategies for how to keep on top of their emotions.”
What should you do if someone publicly bullies you?
There are a few responses you can keep handy when bullies start to direct their wrath your way mid-meeting. Keep in mind, maintaining a calm demeanor and your chutzpah is crucial for an effective delivery. “It’s very difficult,” Kingsley says. “You can say ‘It’s hard to hear what you’re saying when you yell. If you say that in a calm manner I might understand what you’re saying.’
“If you are in a meeting and you are asked to take notes or get coffee, say ‘Maybe John or Tom would be better than I am.’ Don’t allow yourself to be subservient.”
Dr. Nicki Nance, a licensed mental health counselor who teaches human services and counseling at Beacon College, emphasizes the importance of eye contact. “Look (the bully) in the eye. Those who avert eye contact are in the back of the professional herd. Say what you have to say. Count to two.”
“Assess the pluses and deltas that you will take on if you confront the behavior then and there,” says Peggy Klaus, the author of two best-selling books, “Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It” and “The Hard Truth About Soft Skills,” and President of Berkeley, California-based Klaus & Associates, which coaches executives and organizations. “Say something neutral like ‘Obviously there’s been some misunderstanding. I’ll come talk to you after the meeting.’”
What can you do if you find yourself unable to confront your bully in the moment?
Kingsley encourages you try to find colleagues who are sympathetic. “See if they’ll give you the opportunity to talk to them and get verification (of your experience).”
Next, consider a one-on-one conversation. Do not express anger, cry or name call. If that seems like an impossible task, get help. “Maybe at home with your spouse, practice and role play,” Marsden says. “It would be ideal to do this with a coworker you can trust.
Avoid bringing anyone else into the meeting if possible. “The more people you bring, the more they will feel like they’re being attacked,” Marsden says.
To help contain your emotions, have a plan. “Have a written list of your talking points so if you start to get emotional you can hold back the tears,” Marsden says. “Take a second and go back to what you’re trying to say.”
What’s the benefit to confronting your bully?
“No one really loves confrontation,” Klaus says. “It’s hard. It’s scary, but avoiding it really costs you. It’s going to wear you down. It will come out in different ways. Really make a point of speaking up when confronted with something uncomfortable and offensive. If you can’t do it immediately, get on their calendar as soon as you can. There are some bullies that just need to be out-escalated. You need to stand up so you are their equal.”
How do I avoid being bullied in a meeting?
Be conscious of where you sit. “Sit on the right hand of the person with the most power,” Nance says.
Take a relaxed, confident stance. “Put down everything you’re holding … relax your shoulders,” Nance says.
Raise your seat so you’re at eye level with the person in power.
Wear power colors like black white and blue.
If you witness one of your colleagues being bullied, what should you do?
“I don’t think you should directly confront the bully if you’re not being bullied,” Marsden says. “What you should do is talk to your own manager, or that other person’s manager. That behavior shouldn’t be tolerated.
“… Some will turn a blind eye to it and say ‘This isn’t directly impacting me. I shouldn’t get involved.’ Maybe you can say to them ‘What if it was happening to you?’ Unfortunately, corporate America is very individualistic and we do a lot to get ahead. Sometimes that includes bullying others and turning blind eyes when you see that behavior.”
When should you think about getting a new job?
Marsden has a ‘Three strikes and you’re out’ policy. “If you’ve had a one-one-one conversation, gone to your manager or someone else like a mentor for help, and then HR, you don’t get any help and you did everything you could it’s time to look someplace else. Ultimately, that’s what I ended up doing. If you have go to work and actively try to avoid someone, it’s not a way to have a good, healthy work life.”
Kingsley adds that another option before you leave the company might be asking for a transfer.
What are your experiences with battling bullies? Share your war stories and your advice here.
Lauren Bittner is an award-winning freelance writer who focuses on women’s issues. She is a self-titled Giveaway Girl.