I once worked for a bully.
It wasn’t that his ideas weren’t good. In fact, they were often excellent and would, in time, prove effective.
It was just the way he communicated with the team. People were frightened of him. No-one would offer any kind of discussion with him, for fear of him thinking we didn’t agree with his ideas. And he would see that disagreement as a sleight on his character, a criticism of him personally. His rejection of your thoughts, even if they were meant positively, was always made disparagingly, with an air of “I’m right, you’re wrong, so live with it!”
After a re-organisation, I left the company. But before I went, I had my exit interview with the bully. I decided I had nothing to lose, as this was my last day, and told him exactly what my thoughts were of his management style.
He was quite shocked. He never realised that was the impression people had. He had mistaken our silence for ineptitude, our submissiveness for whimpish-ness.
He stated that his intention was to help us get tio the right answer or decision quickly. And, as he knew all the answers, why pussy-foot around asking questions. Isn’t it much quicker just to tell people what to do?
One could argue that our ‘intention’ in communication counts for nothing, and that we should instead attach more importance to observing the response that our communication provokes. We should ask ourselves whether this is the response we want. If it is, we can carry on using this type of communication. If it isn’t, we can adapt our behaviour until we get the response we do want.
Remember, the meaning of my communication is judged by the response I get.
What can you do if you work for someone who decides that the best way to manage someone id to bully them? What if the situation requires you to deal with conflict in the office?
Here are some tips, based on work by Dr Michelle Callahan:
Don’t get emotional. Bullies take pleasure in emotionally manipulating people. Stay calm and rational to diffuse the situation.
Don’t take it personally. Acknowledge that this is not about you; it’s about the bully. Don’t lose your confidence, or think you are incapable or incompetent. They are usually beating you at a mind game, not based on your actual work performance.
Do your best work. The bully’s behavior will seem more justified if you aren’t doing your best work, or if you do things like come to work late, take long lunches, turn in work late, etc.
Keep a record of everything. Keep a journal (on your personal computer or in writing, but never leave it in the office) of what happened when (and who witnessed it) so that if you need to escalate this problem to Human Resources, you have the information you need to make your case. Keep emails and notes.
Seek help. If you think you’re being bullied, it’s time to start talking to others who can help you manage this situation. Try a mentor, advocate, seasoned/experienced friend, even a legal advocate who specializes in bullying and inappropriate or discriminatory behavior in the workplace. Tread lightly when approaching your human resources department. They work for the company, not you, so you have to be careful about what you share depending on how well liked and supported your bully is within the organization. HR doesn’t have the luxury of keeping everything you say confidential so don’t treat a meeting with them like a counseling session where you should share everything you think/feel or assume that they can or will fix the problem for you.
Educate yourself. Learn everything you can about bullying, your company’s policies on inappropriate behavior and occupational law regarding this kind of experience. The more you know, the better your chances of successfully dealing with this situation.
Don’t expect to change the bully. Real behavior change is difficult and it takes time. You have no control over a bully’s willingness to accept that they have a problem and to work on it. You can do your best to manage the situation, but it’s really the company’s responsibility to be observant and responsive to the needs of their workers and the general work environment. In the worst-case scenario you may need to leave your job or be prepared for a long hard fight with your bully and your employer.
That last point is vital. I didn’t try to change my boss, as that would have brought more conflict on my department. But I made it clear at my exit interview what the effects of his behaviour were, and it made him think about what he needed to change in himself.
Head of Training