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How to Work Productively with an Office Bully

Bullying has become a much more discussed and reviewed topic in recent months. Specifically, bullying in schools amongst children has been highlighted as a major issue in child trauma and development.

There is no shortage of toxic, abusive and bullying behaviors happening in other settings as well, specifically with adults in the workplace.

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People who choose to use bullying behavior in the work place exhibit openly or passively aggressive behaviors that are typically intended to humiliate others, help themselves shine or to just cause plain ol’ chaos. As a result, their behaviors could potentially create a hostile work environment for you and for others.

Adult bullying can stem from the person choosing to bully others feeling inadequate in their abilities, insecure about their position or incapable of completing the tasks they were assigned. While this is not an all-inclusive list of the origins of bullying in the workplace, its fair to notice that power and control dynamics are often at-play between the bully and the victim. Regardless of the reason someone chooses to bully someone else, their behaviors are unwanted and need to be interrupted.

An adult’s choice to bully others is an unhealthy reaction to what’s coming up for them in their work place. Being a victim of bullying is not the fault of the victim.

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Another challenge in work place bullying can be addressing the bullying itself. It can be frustrating for your supervisor or your human resources department to not notice the bullying behavior taking place. There are times when it is difficult to prove that bullying is occurring or there are few opportunities to report bullying in the workplace. We can’t forget that shame, victim-blaming and ignorance also hold a place in why it is challenging to addressing office bullying.

Similar to experiencing bullying in a school setting, until this employee is reprimanded for using inappropriate behaviors, we are still in a position to work with this person. Strategies to avoid their presence in work spaces may sometimes work to preserve our overall well-being, but there may come a time when you will need to collaborate, create, present or work together with the person choosing to bully others.

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In recognizing this challenge, here are some ways to be productive and focused when working with the person choosing to bully:

Turn your mindfulness all the way on and tap into your internal strengths.

People who chose to bully others, especially in adulthood, usually intend to target others they feel are inferior. In my experience, age was a huge factor that put me in the “targeted” position. I was usually younger than my colleagues, but qualified to work at the same level. The person choosing to use bullying behaviors towards me was more than twice my age and felt powerful through this “age-seniority”. My age and years of experience (or lack their of, according to this person) were the primary tools used in their bullying towards me.

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In turning my mindfulness on, I was aware of this dynamic. I knew that this person would find ways to lessen my contributions and efforts through my “inexperience” and “millennial” ideas. But I also knew that I was competent, creative, thoughtful and ready to do the work of my position. In our interactions, I was prepared to hear these passive aggressive taunts and felt empowered and self-assured that they were not true.

Let your inner strengths shine through when engaging in your work with people who choose to bully. Remember that your strengths gave you the opportunity to be in the job that you are in and that you are capable of the work put in front of you.

Deflect and/or address negative behaviors by focusing on the work.

I imagine putting on my Wonder Women deflector bracelets when the office bully aims and fires! Deflect or address inappropriate comments with bringing the group back to the task at hand.

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When working on a project, the person choosing to bully made an attempt to embarrass me. Instead of reacting, which looks very different that responding, I chose to refocus and bring the group back to our project. There are several ways this can be said:

  • “I see that we are losing focus on our task. I would like to come back to what we were working on …”
  • “I wonder if we can revisit this part of the project …”
  • “I’ve noticed my age comes up a lot in our discussions. Let’s try to focus on this part of the project instead …”
  • “Hm, it seems like we may be stuck here. Let’s return to this part of the project later.”

Choose to address the situation directly or indirectly, depending on the severity of the bullying behavior, how safe you feel in addressing the bully and how much time that you have. In professional settings, returning the group’s attention back to the work is beneficial to all parties involved. Others may even thank you for helping the group refocus.

Become intentional and remain professional.

Practicing tapping into your internal strengths while deflecting negativity is the job of a true superhero. But as humans that feel all the feelings, we may be impacted by the bullying that’s taking place and are prone to reacting.

Try your best to keep in mind the difference between reacting and responding.

Reacting includeunintentionally speaking out based on what we are feeling on a surface-level. Responding means to intentionally share your thoughts after processing what you are feeling on a surface-level.

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In this setting, it may be challenging to respond in intentional and thoughtful ways. Reacting is most often our default way of engaging with others. Responding takes practice and a little extra energy. Yet in professional settings, it is the preferred and respectful way to work with others. Not to mention that your positive feelings of self-worth will only be raised by responding rather than reacting. 🙂

Talk to your supervisor or office leadership.

If practicing the above methods does not seem to make things better in your work environment, it may be time for human resources to step in.

Follow your office protocol of addressing inappropriate behaviors accordingly. That may look like filing a formal complaint or setting up time to speak with your supervisor. Be prepared to answer concrete questions about your fellow employee’s bullying behavior with details and examples.

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Your emotional and physical safety at work is top priority and you have a right to work in a safe environment.

Working with adults that choose to bully other adults at work is not easy. Their behavior can take up a lot of negative space in your office environment. By tapping into your confidence, deflecting/addressing their aggression, increasing your ability to be intentional and knowing the chain of command for worst-case scenarios, you will be able to navigate the whirlwind of an adult office bully.

How do you handle bullying in the workplace?

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