What do you do if the person in the next cubicle constantly gives you the silent treatment, glares, ignores your requests for information, makes belittling comments in meetings, puts you down in public, spreads false gossip about you, takes credit for what you did, accuses you falsely of making mistakes, tries to rally other people to be nasty to you and cuts you down to your manager? Even worse, what do you do if that’s your boss, and he also yells at you, makes personal and derogatory comments in front of the rest of the team, gives you unreasonable projects or deadlines so you’ll fail, evaluates you dishonestly and harshly, and is relentlessly critical?
Women, just as much as men, create hostile workplaces by verbal abuse and emotional intimidation. They may even be more sneaky and manipulative.
What’s happened to you? And what can you do?
In her column in the New York Times, “When the Bully Sits in the Next Cubicle,” and her blog post, “Have You Been Bullied at Work,” Tara Parker-Pope gives statistics for how prevalent these behaviors are. Statistics are cold, but the individual pain of being treated this way is very hot.
I use the term “stealth bullies” for the subtle, sneaky, manipulative, critical, controlling workplace bullies who don’t use physical violence. Most people at work let this behavior fly below their radar. If we recognized and labeled these people as bullies, we’d be energized to resist.
Instead, many people take part of the blame and suffer in isolation. They feel helpless and hopeless.
On an individual level, I think the first key to resisting is to recognize and label the actions as bullying so you’re galvanized to resist. Then find allies and shine a light on it. Think tactically and understand you’re in a war. Because laws won’t help much, you’ll have to find other levers to exert pressure.
I don’t spend much time analyzing why bullies do it. We know the major categories: personal dislikes, using brutality or someone’s back as a stepping stone, and ego stroking (“If I put you down, I’m one up). You could probably reel off a few more. In general, the approach of understanding doesn’t help.
I see hostile workplaces, verbal abuse and emotional intimidation not only in medical, legal and academic environments, but especially in government offices, non-profits and public service. In those areas, people are often afraid of “confrontation” or of making “judgments” (someone is a bully). In those areas, the typical culture thinks that the best way to stop bullying is to educate and rehabilitate bullies instead of simply stopping them first. That’s like telling a battered wife (or husband) to endure the brutality while her husband gets therapy.
The purpose of most workplaces is not to be a therapeutic community for their workers. Set high standards and enforce them at all levels. But if the people at the top won’t dedicate themselves to stopping harassment and bullying, you won’t be able to stop it. That’s like schools in which principals and teachers won’t stop bullying.
As a coach, consultant and speaker, I encourage people to fight to win. The book, “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and the CD set, “Eliminate the High Cost of Low Attitudes,” can help but it’s crucial to design tactics for your specific needs and the situation.
But if you can’t win, don’t stay in a place where the powers are out to crush you mentally and emotionally, or where your spirit will be destroyed.