Strategies for dealing with workplace bullies

In addition to teaching kids how to handle bullies, I also provide online education on how to handle harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace. (see:

How effective is your anti-bullying program?
How effective is your anti-bullying program?

I teach how to use operant conditioning to train the bully to not bully you. Kind of like how you train a dog to stop barking or sleep train a child. Same technique – just applied to bullying. Yes it works. It’s the only thing that does. All anti-bullying trainings train these techniques to a certain extent. Some are better than others. The protocol being used is called Extinguish a Behavior. The key to successfully implementing it is consistency over time.

Common myths about how to handle workplace bullying:

1) Ignore them and they will go away doesn’t work because what really needs to happens is that you need to stop rewarding the bully and they will eventually go away after cycling through something called an extinction burst. The difference between “ignore them” and “do not reward them” might seem minor – but it is the difference between success and failure because it’s the difference between truly understanding what you need to do and not understanding it at all.
2) Isolating yourself from the bully also doesn’t work because you are isolating yourself from everyone and to combat the bully effectively, you need allies. When being bullied, you have to be proactive about recruiting allies.
3) Observing how others deal with the bully won’t work well because if the bully is still bullying, it means no one else has figured out how to get them to stop either. Why copy failure?

What does work?

1) Be prepared with something to say in response to verbal slights and abuse. Practice what you want to say and how you are going to say it. Have someone practice with you as you do need to practice your words out loud and get feedback to make sure your response is calm. It needs to be a neutral statement that lets the bully know you heard them but aren’t bothered by them. This is what is known as a neutral response. Non-sequitors are great for this actually. A single word – one of your corporate values can also work if it is delivered in calm and compassionate way. Never debate a bully. Just deliver a non-response response in a neutral and calm, ideally compassionate, tone of voice. Repeat as necessary. The bully will respond to this by being more aggressive but if you keep responding with a non-response, they will eventually give up and go bother someone else. At which point, continue to intervene and respond with your non-response response.

2) If you are dealing with a passive aggressive withholder of resources or someone who is gaslighting you – you need to start documenting everything. It’s called CYA. Should you have to do this? No. But if you are going to have any chance of beating the bully at this game, you need to do it aggressively. Your goal is to be seen as professional and calm, following up to make sure there are no misunderstandings. You are not trying to prove the other person is a jerk, only that you are doing your best to work well with your co-workers effectively. If the other person is a jerk, they will do a great job of showing that on their own, they don’t need your help. How this works: if there is a verbal agreement about something with the passive aggressive individual, follow up with an email that is cc’d to their supervisor. You are trying to make sure what was asked for is clear and who is responsible for each element of whatever it is also clear so that there are no misunderstandings. Do this relentlessly and on every single interaction with them. This documentation will help supervisors see who is doing what and where the problem really lies. Don’t accuse them of withholding resources, that turns this into a conflict. It isn’t. If they aren’t doing their job, that’s their problem, not yours. Documentation will help you prove that without you overtly trying to prove anything.

3) Keep a log of all that happens. Everything. When it happened. Who did it, what exactly happened (exact words, etc), where exactly it happened, who witnessed it and any evidence you have that it happened (email exchanges, photographs, etc). This will help you identify if there are patterns of behavior so you can prepare for them and develop a strategy. But it will also help you if you are being gaslighted – to prove – that actually, there is a pattern of harassment going on. And b) if you end up needing to file a lawsuit – you will have the documentation you need to file one. Bullies hate it when their victims document everything because it means, they are getting caught. They live in the shadows where they can deny what they are doing. Documentation brings it into the light.

If you are being bullied in the workplace – consider signing up for this 1 hour program: It will arm you with what you need to know about how to handle harassment and retaliation in the workplace.

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