Outsmarting Bullies: How to Play Your “A” Game Despite a Workplace Bully

By Dr. Lynne Curry

“Fat thighs,” Celia told me. “That’s what Dan whispered just before I stood up to speak. I heard it and so did two others. And that’s all it took to knock me off balance. I stumbled through my presentation. All I could think of was maybe I shouldn’t have worn a snug-fitting pants suit.”

“Later, my boss asked, ‘I’ve never seen you so rattled? What was up?’ and I was too embarrassed to explain what happened. I knew I shouldn’t have let Dan’s remark throw me. Dan loves to jab at me, and I generally just try to ignore him. What sickens me is that Dan and I are competing for a promotion, and he’ll probably get it. If he does, I’ll need to quit.”

Has a workplace bully tossed a snarky comment at you? Come gunning for you because your competency threatened him? Said something that knocked you sideways before an important event, or that later you couldn’t get out of your mind? Deliberately sabotaged you to take you out of competition for a promotion?

If so, learn to play your “A” game despite what the bully tosses your way. Here’s what you need to know.

Bullies hope you’ll make mistakes, because it gives them control. In the true story above, Celia fell into four traps – she let Dan’s comment get to her; she pretended to ignore Dan’s earlier comments; she blamed herself for being bullied, and she didn’t prepare to handle her bully’s next attack.

Letting a bully’s comments seep into your mind

Like mosquitos feed off human blood, bullies feed off others’ distress. If you let a bully’s comments seep, like poison, into your own head, and allow their remarks to shape how you see yourself, you aid and abet the bully.

You’re your brain’s owner and landlord. Don’t let the bully rent space in your brain. Instead of thinking “I bet my thighs do look fat,” Celia needed to think “What a crass jerk. He’s trying to throw me off my game. That’s not going to happen. I’ll focus on my presentation and what I want to get across.”

Pretending to ignore a bully

Like Celia, many individuals targeted by bullies pretend to ignore them. They look the other way or even convince themselves they’re making “too big a deal” of bad treatment or insults. Bullies love this and even respond “just kidding,” if you weakly protest their insults.

Avoid the denial trap. Instead of looking the other way or downplaying problem behavior, let the bully know by your words and actions, “I see you what you’re doing. It stops now.” Your bully’s defeat begins when you admit what’s happening and handle it.

Blaming themselves

Many targets even convince themselves that the bully’s actions are justified, that they must have done something to provoke the bully. Like Celia, some blame themselves for failing to handle the bully. Criticize the bully not yourself.

Trying to appease a bully

Other targets try to appease workplace bullies. When you let bullies push you around because they may get “ugly” if you don’t, you play a losing game. Bullies know others back down in the face of aggression, so they play your fear to their advantage. Never make an unhealthy compromise to prevent a confrontation.

If a bully criticizes you unfairly (and yes, the bully realizes they’re hitting below the belt, they just don’t care) and you back off, you show the bully you can be pushed around. Bullies hesitate, however, to joust with those willing to stand up to them.

Assuming others will help

Some targets expect to receive help from coworkers or their supervisor when under fire. Because many bullies reveal their true selves only to their target while maintaining a charming front to others, you may be the only one who sees the bully for who he is. Further, those who realize what’s happening may run for cover, viewing the fight as yours and not theirs.

Stooping to the bully’s level

Some bully victims seek revenge by angrily attacking back. This rarely works. Bullies have years of experience fighting dirty, giving them the advantage if you climb into the ring. “Giving back as good as you get” can also make you look like you’re as much of a problem as the bully.

In short, you generally lose or at least regret how you act when you stoop to the bully’s level. Don’t fall into this trap by letting a bully push you into being less than the quality professional person you are.  Take a deep breath, assess the situation, and decide how to act rather than react.

Pleading with the bully to change

When you plead, you signal to the bully that he has the upper hand—not a wise move as bullies believe weak individuals deserve poor treatment. Don’t expect compassion; bullies respect only strength and power.

Bullies don’t need to change—what they do works for them. Don’t give your bully power by leaving it up to him to realize what he is doing and decide to improve. Instead of hoping that your bully will realize his actions hurt you and change, you need to change in order to outsmart the bullies in your work life.  What makes bullies change? Negative consequences to them. Show bullies what they lose if they treat you poorly.

Not being prepared

Although Dan had belittled Celia before, she hadn’t prepared to handle another salvo. That changed after the “fat thighs” incident. Celia called me, outlined the situation and asked for coaching.

Together we brainstormed multiple strategies for handling Dan, including creating an arsenal of comebacks to take the wind out of Dan’s sails the next time he bullied Celia in front of others.

As Celia walked to the front of the conference table to give her next presentation, Dan whispered “big butt” to her, loudly enough that others heard her.

She turned toward him and asked, “And that matters to you, why?” Those nearby reacted with silence, then hoots of laughter. As Celia calmly gave a stellar presentation, a red-faced Dan sat in silence.


© 2016, Dr. Lynne Curry, author of Solutions and Beating the Workplace Bully, AMACOM.

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Advancing Women

Advancing Women