Work bullies can ruin a culture, destroy productivity and make your life – and the lives of everyone else they target – miserable.
And it’s not just bullying bosses who are the problem. Co-workers and employees also use bullying behavior that creates a hostile workplace.
Excluding lethal weapons, here are the top dozen techniques bullies use to ruin a workplace.
These methods cause increased hostility, tension, selfishness, turf wars, sick leave, stress-related disabilities, turn over and legal actions. People become isolated, do busy work with no important results and waste huge chunks of time talking about the latest episodes of bullying.
The best way to stop a bully is to stand up to them. Expose and isolate them. Or catch them doing something outrageous or illegal in front of witnesses. Stopping them and having serious consequences for repetitions are also the greatest stimuli for change.
Jane’s sister, Betty, seemed to have been born with a vicious tongue. She attacked everyone relentlessly. Holidays with the extended family were a misery for Jane and her family. Nobody, not even their mother, stopped Betty. Everyone was afraid to complain directly to Betty. If they did, Betty would turn on them even more spitefully before.
According to Betty, nobody’s children were good enough – they were all ugly, stupid, ignorant, mean or bad. They were too fat or too skinny; they ate too much or too little; they ate too fast or too slow. They dreamed too big for their non-existent talents.
Betty laughed joyfully when she pounced on someone’s mistakes, no matter how trivial or irrelevant. Their choices were always wrong, their clothes and manners were wrong. Betty always knew better and rubbed everyone’s nose in it.
Some of Betty’s reasons excuses and justifications for why she was so hostile were:
“Those are my feelings. It’s my honest opinion. You wouldn’t want me to repress how I feel, would you?”
“You're too sensitive.”
“I’m doing it for their own good. You’re too soft on them. They’ll never get better if you don’t correct them.”
“I had to take it when I was a kid. It’ll make them stronger and tougher.”
“They have to learn to take it. They’ll get it like that in the real-world.”
Of course, everyone can have a bad day and be grumpy. But with Betty, it was everyday and it was relentless, hostile and mean-spirited.
Bullies want us to try to argue with their reasons, excuses and justifications. The more we argue, the more we’re engaged without their ever changing. If we make a good point, they’ll change the subject and give another excuse or cite a different time when they were right. They’ll never admit that they need to change; that’s how we know they’re bullies.
Or, if we challenge them, their feelings will be so hurt that they’ll withdraw into a very loud silent treatment. And it’ll go on forever until we give up, admit we were cruel, promise never to attack them again and simply accept the abuse. That’s how we know they’re bullies.
What can Jane do? Remember, all tactics have to be designed to fit our specific situations, what we want to accomplish and the limits of our comfort zones.
Jane once asked Betty not to say anything to Jane’s children; Betty was hurting them and Jane had told them take it because Betty was their aunt. But Betty hadn’t changed. Finally, Jane decided that she wasn’t going to expose herself and her family to any more of Betty’s abuse. She’d end the unrelenting negativity, harassment, criticism, blame, shame and guilt-trips.
Once again, she asked Betty to stop talking the way she did and to find nice things to say. She asked Betty to be nicer, kinder and more polite to family than she would be to strangers. But Betty didn’t stop.
She told Betty she wanted her to feel differently but if she couldn’t, she still wanted her to take charge of her tongue and to repress herself; being an abusive bully is worse than repressing herself. But Betty didn’t stop.
She told Betty that if the brutality continued, she wouldn’t come if Betty was present. That would cause a rift in the family and it would be Betty’s fault. Betty didn’t stop.
Jane told the family she’d decided that she’d never let bullies treat her and her family the way Betty did. She had to take charge of keeping them safe from people who polluted their emotional environment. She asked them to choose the behavior they’d support even if that meant they all told Betty to change or they’d stop inviting her. Jane reminded them of what Mr. Spock said, “Never sacrifice the many for the sake of the one.” But Betty didn’t stop.
Jane decided that behavior was more important than blood. More important than victimizing her children by subjecting them to their Aunt Betty’s viciousness, was setting a good example by protecting them from abuse. She didn’t want them to experience the anxiety, stress and discouragement that had accompanied visits with Betty. That meant they didn’t see Betty any more. That also meant they saw the rest of the family only on one-to-one occasions when Betty was not present.
Over the years, the same conversations were replayed after extended family gathering except in Jane’s house. There, Jane and her family had a wonderful time; free from criticism, bullying and abuse; free from the endless re-hashing of Betty’s latest attacks.
Once Jane had cleared the abuse out of her family’s life, they were able to find friends they loved being with.
With expert coaching and consulting, we can look at individual situations and plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation. We can overcome the voices of our fears and self-bullying. We can overcome childhood rules to give in to or argue with bullies’ excuses, reasons and justifications. We can become strong and skilled enough to stop bullies in their tracks – even if those bullies are blood relatives.
“How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” has many examples of adults getting over their early training and then stopping bullies. For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).
Carl loved the title of “Mr. Negative.” He was proud of being smarter than anyone else and thought his put-downs were funny. No matter what you said, he would disagree, counter it or top it. His personal attacks, sarcasm and cutting remarks could bring most people to tears. He could create a tense, hostile workplace in minutes.
He could bring a brainstorming or planning meeting to a halt by finding fault with every suggestion or plan, and proving that nothing would work. He was convinced that his predictions were accurate and more valuable to the team than the frustration and anger he created. On his team, sick-leave and turnover were high, while morale, camaraderie and teamwork were low. Productivity was also low because most people wasted a huge percent of their time talking about Carl’s latest exploits.
What can you do?
In this case, his manager had heard me present “How to Eliminate the High Cost of Low Attitudes” at a conference, and had brought me in as a consultant. She wanted me to help her create a culture that would be professional, retain high quality staff and be much more productive.
Why did his manager, Jane, bring me in, instead of simply evaluating Carl honestly and having consequences leading to demotion and eventual termination if he didn’t change? Jane thought that:
Carl was bright and expert enough in his specialty that she was afraid of losing him.
If she was a good enough manager and learned to say the magic words, Carl would straighten out.
Her hands were tied because Carl was a long-term employee in a government organization.
Coaching helped Jane see that she was victimizing the rest of the team by giving in to her fears and helplessness. Carl was verbally abusive and emotionally intimidating. And he was subtly manipulative because he had a soft voice and a smile on his face while he sarcastically cut his co-workers to ribbons. She saw that if she continued to give in to her fear of losing Carl, she’d lose her reputation and position because her team would mutiny or quit.
Despite these insights, Jane remained a conflict-avoidant manager. She would allow the team to act, but she wouldn’t lead the way. Therefore we worked around her.
I helped the team create a set of behavioral expectations for individual professional interactions and for team meetings. It was no surprise that the list did not included any of Carl’s behaviors, that his behaviors were specifically prohibited and that the list of appropriate behaviors contained the opposite ones Carl had been bullying coworkers with.
The rest of the team voted to accept the code of professional behavior. Carl said he’d sign but he wouldn’t change his behavior. He’d been Mr. Negativity as long as he could remember and didn’t think he could change.
That seemed like an impasse. No one wanted to waste a lifetime waiting for Carl to go through therapy, especially since he didn’t want to change anyway. I helped the team realize that Carl had no reason to change. There were no adverse consequences to him if he kept doing what he was doing. The team needed some leverage.
Since the manager wouldn’t act on her own, the rest of the team took a bold step. They told Carl that they wouldn’t tolerate his hostility and the tension it caused. They said that they’d remove him immediately from any meeting in which he started his negative putdowns. He laughed nervously, thinking they’d never really do that. He still wouldn’t accept that his behavior was so hurtful and despised.
At the next meeting, of course, Carl was negative as usual. He was shocked when the rest of the team immediately stood up and told him to leave. He sheepishly did, with a parting shot that they’d never come up with a good plan without him.
He was wrong. They did develop a good plan to deal with the problem they’d been working on. They also gave him his assignment within it. They told him that people who weren’t at meetings must be happy with the tasks assigned to them. Carl was outraged and protested. He looked for support from anyone on the team, but everyone was against him. That also stunned him. They told him that they were following the team’s behavior code. He could play according to the rules and take what he got or leave. They also told him that he could be very likeable when he wanted to and they’d be glad to be on a team with the “likeable Carl.”
It took two more meetings at which Carl was asked to leave, before he began to change. It was amazing to all of them, including Carl, that what he thought was a life-long pattern, changed when enough leverage was applied. He really did like what he did and he also had wanted to be liked.
This example is over the top in many ways. But I have a question for you: Did the rest of the team bully Carl or were they right in voting him off their island when he was an abusive bully?
One general lesson here is: “When the legitimate authority won’t act and, therefore, leaves a power vacuum, the most hostile and power-hungry people usually fill it. Your task is to fill it with the best behavior instead.”
There are many other ways to solve the problems that the Carl’s of the world cause at work and at home. A stronger manager would have done it by herself. Jane obviously had problems as a manager and wouldn't step outside her comfort zone to solve them. Her boss soon took appropriate action.
It’s also a different matter if the negative person is the manager or boss. There are many other problem behaviors that can be resolved with the Behavioral Code approach. In other blog posts I’ll cover those bullying situations at work.
Please tell me your story so I can be sure to respond to it.