Whether it’s a difficult boss, an antagonistic coworker, or a disrespectful client, bullies exist in every area of the workplace.
Whether it’s a difficult boss, an antagonistic coworker, or a disrespectful client, bullies exist in every area of the workplace. Professionals in the earliest stages of their careers know this better than anyone.
In a recent study measuring bullying among 4,143 German employees, mental health expert Stefanie Lange, along with her colleagues, observed the prevalence of severe bullying at work, with junior employees being more susceptible to intimidation than their superiors. The researchers found that power imbalances between experienced and newer workers can create an authority gap that has the potential to generate abusive and intimidating behaviors from those who have higher status.
Researchers generally classify workplace bullying as harassing, offending, excluding, or maliciously disrupting someone’s tasks. It can be job-related (extreme monitoring of performance, doling out an unbearable workload, or overly ridiculing) or person-related (gossiping about someone, undermining them, inflicting public humiliation or excessive criticism, and subjecting them to social isolation). For an action to be categorized as bullying, it must take place repeatedly and purposefully (or with ill intent).
If not addressed, bullying can destroy a person’s core sense of mental stability, damage their overall well-being, and increase job turnover. Further, giving in to or tolerating a bully may motivate them to continue practicing toxic behaviors.
If you’re a young professional dealing with bullying at work, how can you confront the bully, stand up for yourself, and do your bit in fostering a bully-free workplace?
To answer that question, and to help the clients I consult with defend themselves in this situation, my team and I used open-ended questions to survey more than 2,000 professionals in various industries about workplace bullying. In analyzing the results, we’ve learned that, across professions and career stages, people who successfully confront intimidation follow three basic principles.
Become a bee.
How many times have you smashed a mosquito on the wall? Shooed a fly? How about cockroaches? Spiders? What about honeybees? When a honeybee flies by, you likely show more respect. Why? Because, bees work hard and provide value to our environment. They’re protected by their hive, and of course, if you try to hurt them, you risk getting stung.
To set yourself up for success at work, and protect yourself from bullies before they even start, you can do something similar: Be a bee.
What exactly do we mean?
Find your sting — a visible way to defend yourself from bullying behavior. You may work hard, achieve your goals, and provide a great deal of value to your organization, but if your colleagues don’t respect you and treat you poorly, all that probably feels pointless. Finding your sting can help. Luckily for you, your sting is not one dimensional. It’s a combination of attributes unique to every person.
For example, quite a few of our participants reported that they felt safer and more confident when they strictly and continuously followed official procedures. “Doing the right thing all the time, even if it’s the hard thing, will not make you the most popular person at work, but people eventually have to respect that kind of identity — even bullies,” one respondent told us.
In other words, playing by the book can be your “sting.” It can give you a sense of security and help you stay on track, especially early in your career when you’re less familiar with the way things work in your organization. While being a rule-follower alone might not prevent every bully from taking their chances, it will give them fewer weaknesses to exploit. You have hard, documented policies to back up your actions and behaviors. A perpetrator will worry that as soon as things get out of hand, a rule-follower will proceed down the formal route to justice and report the incident or person.
Strengthening your network, or building your hive, is another way to find your “sting.” Many of our participants worked hard on building a strong network that helped them influence people and form alliances within their workplace.
“If you have good relationships with your coworkers,” another respondent told us, “great things happen. It becomes your very own ‘bully-proof’ vest.”
When it comes to your network, every connection matters — but having good relationships with senior employees or influential people in the organization can be extremely useful in this scenario. If worst comes to worst, those are the individuals that can vouch for you or even battle by your side using their hierarchical position.
However, being on good terms with the rest of your colleagues, regardless of their level in the chain of command, can also help. Even though your peers can’t use their authority in the same ways, they can give you the psychological safety you may need to talk things out. They can participate in unofficial conversations, and if asked to express or testify their opinions and experiences after an incident, they can be your allies. These alliances are collectively more powerful than an intimidator.
Don’t let your emotions overpower your reaction.
One of our respondents, Uma, an early career professional from the banking sector, was being intimidated by a senior colleague. “It was my first job, and I didn’t want it to affect my performance or evaluation, but [the bully] was awful!” she said. “Her demeaning remarks made me so upset… I felt ridiculed and was overwhelmed by fear and anger. I felt like I was about to explode.”
Uma told us that she was often so tense and distracted that she found it difficult to focus on her work. She would return home, frustrated and in tears. Over time, this led to negative self-talk and underperformance.
One day, Uma realized that she needed to change things. She put aside her anger, frustration, and the urge to snap back and confronted her bully. She spoke respectfully about how she felt and why, and listened patiently to what her perpetrator had to say in response.
Uma did what we would advise anyone (who feels safe enough) to do in this kind of situation. Rather than lashing out or letting her emotions get the better of her, she respectfully initiated a discussion with the bully. She was direct in her approach, and importantly, when the bully responded, Uma didn’t get defensive or cut her off. She listened.
Chris Voss, former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI, told us that when you are trying to navigate a high-pressure situation, like in Uma’s case, you first need to carefully listen to what the other side has to say. Dissecting why people feel how they feel can exploit the space between a solution and a dead end.
Uma’s senior colleague did not admit anything, but from the discussion, Uma discovered the reason behind her hostility. Uma was working hard to add as much value as possible to her organization, and her bully appeared worried that she would compare unfavorably. “After we talked, things got better but not ideal — more like awkward,” Uma said. “I think she was afraid that I might take the official path [and go to HR]. Now we pretty much avoid one another, but the intimidation is no longer an issue.”
For people in a position similar to Uma, we would advise you to take a pause before acting. If you react instinctively, guided by your negative emotions, you may end up increasing the conflict, reducing mutual gain, and damaging any chances of future collaboration. Instead, take a deep breath to calm your nerves. This will help you detach emotionally and explore what is best for you under the circumstances.
If you feel safe enough to approach your colleague one on one, begin the conversation by being respectful but direct. After you say your part, listen as much as you speak, so the other person is not on the defensive. You may discover that there is room for reconciliation, or as in Uma’s case, you may not. If the bullying continues, it may be time to elevate it to HR or your manager.
Finally, keep in mind that, in some cases, it may be best to call out the unwanted behavior in the moment. Do this as soon as it takes place, rather than waiting for it to snowball and make you miserable. For example, if someone calls you names in a meeting, say in a firm but constructive way: “I don’t appreciate being called that. Please use my name.” When you react quickly and use direct language, you set clear boundaries.
Build golden bridges.
Let’s say that you’re not quite ready to give up on the situation or elevate it to a higher authority. One last approach our respondents found effective is based on what Sun Tzu, one of the greatest warlords that ever lived, once said: “Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.”
Top performing police interrogators, for example, are experts at this. An FBI investigator told us that when they are interviewing a suspect, they gradually exclude themselves from the equation and leave the evidence to do the dirty work. When they need to turn the heat on, they can then say something like, “I’m not asking you to tell me if you are guilty or not. The evidence already told me that. What I’m asking is for you to tell me why you did it. That is the only way to see if I can help you get the best possible result considering the difficult situation you are in.” The last sentence reveals the best available option for the given scenario, aka the golden bridge.
This technique doesn’t just work in forensics — it works in business, too. As soon as you realize you are getting in an office battle zone, start gathering evidence to block all exits besides the one you consider fair. Dr. William Ury, co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation and one of the world’s leading experts on mediation of international conflicts, searches for the golden bridge by asking himself, “How do I make it easier for the other side to reach the decision that I want them to get to?” Follow his advice: Once you’ve gathered enough evidence, present it your bully, as well as your desired exit.
As an example, one of our respondents was a newly appointed auditor working at a bank. From her first day, her manager was unfriendly. He repeatedly mistreated her and prevented her from fully doing her job. “He denied giving me information and support, excluded me from key meetings, and after the first few weeks, he openly insulted me in front of other employees,” she said. “It got to a point where I didn’t want to show up at work.” As time went on, she realized that her manager felt threatened by her presence.
Due to her manager’s behavior, she didn’t feel comfortable approaching him directly. She needed another strategy. Eventually, she discovered that there were several processes led by the manager that were not in compliance with federal policies and laws. She confronted him, but not as an enemy. She presented the facts to him and explained how his errors seriously threatened his employment and his branch in the long term. Then she presented her solution: She could help him fix things if he stopped inhibiting her from doing her work.
She also used the opportunity to demand respect and fair treatment. To put it simply, she constructed an argument that would make the other side gladly retreat. The manager didn’t stop being a difficult person, but the workplace became much better for her.
Like the interrogator we spoke to, our auditor worked hard to gather the evidence she needed to lead the conversation to her desired solution. She constructed a rational argument with the goal of adding value to her organization while simultaneously allowing her manager to save face.
A golden bridge can be an excellent way to inhibit workplace intimidation before following the official path.
In the end, you may be doing everything right: managing your emotions, following procedures, and building respect within and around you. Even so, it can be difficult to change a bully’s behavior. Know that you do not have to bear it, at any stage of your career. If the pressure is suffocating and continuous, if there is a threat of violence, or if you cannot distance yourself from the bully despite all your efforts, going up the chain of command or taking the case to HR might be the only way to go.
You’ve got this.
Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.