Scrabble Bully

How to Survive the Office Bully

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Being a software person has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side you probably “speak machine” with ease. However we often struggle to interface well with the other humans. One of the ills of the office that I have experienced is the office bully. Over the years I have compiled an effective strategy and tactics to deal with them.

The best resource I’ve read is a book called “Beating the Workplace Bully” by Lynne Curry (twitter). The book does an exemplary job of describing the situation and prescribing treatment for dealing with the workplace bully. I share the content below. Read on to see the details and my analysis!

Defining a Workplace Bully

Cubical Farm
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“Why do bullies win? – Bullies win, I explained, “because they set a rigged game in motion, and the rest of us find ourselves playing it—and badly. If you want to escape the bully’s control, you need to take the bully on and change the game’s rules” – Lynne Curry

Workplace bullying is psychological violence and aggressive manipulation in the form of repeated humiliation or intimidation, and may include situational, verbal, or physical abuse.

None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. Sometimes our self esteem can suffer. None of that merits what a bully dishes out.

Bullies and those having a bad day can sometimes be difficult to tell apart. They demonstrate similar behaviors. Yet the difference lies in the repetition. If you have a bad encounter with someone once and never again it might be they had a bad day and took it out on you. If this is common occurrence then it is likely you are dealing with a bully.

Why Me?

One of the first steps is to figure out why you are in the bully’s crosshairs. Some of the reasons might be:

  • Bad luck
  • Ignored warning signs
  • Have something they want
  • Signaling you are an easy target
  • Put up with lousy treatment
  • Give away your power

Growing up they learn how to push other people’s buttons to get what they want. Since this works they continue it to see how far they can go. Later they might work their way up the corporate ladder. They may treat senior management quite differently than their manager, colleagues, clients, etc. This buys them some protection and the benefit of the doubt “that’s not the Jeff I know…“.

Although bullies damage morale and productivity in the long run, they often produce great short-term results. This leads some senior executives to embrace the bully as a hard-charging, bottom line–oriented taskmaster, claiming, “Say what you will, he gets results”. – Lynne Curry

We are going to require some unorthodox methods to combat them. Let us first look at some common traps that bullies use.

Bully Traps

No Bully Zone
Beware these bully traps!

The book highlights 8 of the most common traps and how you can avoid them.

  1. Denial – pretending what is happening is not
    1. Bullies love victims who distrust their own feelings
  2. Collusion – giving bullies an outpost in your head
    1. Do not let them live rent free in your head – you are the landlord
    2. They do not define your or shape your self esteem
    3. Instead speak up and take back your power. Don’t take the bait
  3. Delusion – expecting the bully the change
    1. They are not going to change. It works for them.
  4. Diminishment – reacting angrily  or stooping to the bully’s level
  5. Submission – pleading, apologizing, or giving in
    1. When you beg / plead you signal that they have won. This only incurs more of the same treatment.
    2. Instead demonstrate what they win or lose if they treat you differently – assertively and professionally dish out negative consequences.
  6. Passivity – not standing up to or appeasing the bully
  7. Gullibility – believing lies and chasing contrived issues
  8. Isolation – letting the bully cut you off from others
    1. Bullies often don’t want to go after someone with powerful allies who might turn on them
    2. Instead make friends, build relationships with colleagues, acquire allies, and build your reputation

Do not let them live rent free in your head – you are the landlord

By avoiding these pitfalls you can decrease the likelihood of being bullied or deal with it better.

How to Overcome the Workplace Bully

Improvise Adapt Overcome Bully

Changing Yourself

Doormats can change. Change your mentality and see yourself from a more positive perspective. I look at this like reprogramming your mind to heal and move forward. The harsh truth is that you must be assertive and drive your life because nature abhors a vacuum and someone else will try to steer you into less favorable pastures.

Imposter Syndrome is alive and well with us software people. The same advice often given for dispelling that is the same for dealing with a bully.

Fake it until you make it – you are creating a new you!

Remember – bullies have more respect for those who stand up to them. Their words have the power to grab your attention, fester around in your head, and change your outlook on life. Do not be complicit with poor treatment. Mentally take the offensive and set goals for going forward – you are living on your terms instead of what someone else wants. Get their toxic thoughts out of your mind and supplant them with your own. If they can say something and get you to react or feel angry – they have some ownership over you.

Bullying produces results for the bully. If you don’t want to be steamrolled or trampled, you have to become someone who can and will stand up to and outmaneuver bullies. This means you need to think and act differently from how you have in the past -Lynne Curry

Here are some ideas for setting the foundation for self change: meditation, guided imagery, visualization, affirmations, etc.

Dealing with the Bully

The cliche “change the game” is what we need to do. Going forward you are refusing to play by their rules and their game. Don’t fight fire with fire – you will likely lose that since they are superior already at that game. However, that does not mean we are going to employ excessive kindness. This will not help but hurt. Some people take kindness for weakness – this is who we are dealing with.

Tactically you need some verbal weapons to use when under siege. Here are some contrived scenarios and replies to consider:

  • “Excuse me…” followed by repeating what you just heard
  • Call out what you see – “you are insulting me in front of an audience. Let’s take this offline”
  • Calmly retort “Your point?” to snarky remarks
  • Responding to vague or suggestive statements – make them spell it out. “No I don’t know what you mean by <inflammatory comment>. Tell us…”
  • The word that never fall out of fashion: “no”, “not going to happen”, “what?”, “give it a rest”
  • Imagine someone taking advantage of you getting coffee each morning for them – “Hey these lattes cost about $5 each – do you have the cash for what you’d like me to get you or will you be getting it yourself?”

We are not engaging in a screaming match. We are not fighting fire with fire. De-escalate the situation and defend yourself. At some point you must tell the bully the situation needs to change.

Arguing with a bully may make you feel better in the short run but it leads to retaliation in the long run

Tips and Tricks

Various tips for readying yourself:

  • Focus on breathing
  • Mental imagery that roots you
  • Ask questions – this can disarm them and turn the tables
  • Sometimes you need to mount a counteroffensive – especially against character assassination, slander, or other such defamation

If workplace bullying starts to affect your life and you are having trouble coping then you may want to consider therapy. Most companies offer some sort of Employee Assistance Program (EAP) free of charge. You need an ally that does not currently know you because your family and friends likely know you too well and see you as a hot mess. An objective opinion is needed.

Good luck!

If you liked this then you might enjoy reading about Introvert at Work – How to Survive and Be Successful as a Software Engineer..

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