Bullying is one of those things that you hope you will leave behind at the school gates when you walk out of them for the last time. Unfortunately, however, it rears its ugly head again and again as we walk through life. Children bullies sometimes grow into adult bullies. It’s as simple as that. Lots of people have “moments” where they behave in ways that they aren’t proud of as children. But a select few are truly invested in the manipulation and coercion of their environment and those around them, and unfortunately those behaviours persist into adulthood. So what on earth are you supposed to do if you meet one of these adult bullies in the wild?
There is a confusing difference between the advice we get as kids and the advice we get as adults about confronting bullying behaviour. As children, we are told to “face the bully head on” in order to tackle the issue. Then suddenly we grow up and the bullies don’t go away, they just change form. And so does the advice. All of a sudden we are told to “ignore them” and to try to win the situation by “taking the higher ground”. “Out perform them” is something I was told once… As a junior staff member… Being bullied and harassed by my direct manager. How, I sat and wondered, was I meant to out perform someone when I didn’t even know how to use the document management software properly or log my annual leave yet? I tried and I tried, withstanding every conversation where my work was torn apart line by line, my appearance criticised again and again, and I ultimately overcame the situation by leaving that team, but it felt like a hollow win when I thought about the fact that some unsuspecting human was about to enter in under that manager and history would likely repeat itself.
In my experience the only consistent advice you do hear is to tell someone (as a child that is a teacher, as an adult, HR) but that rarely results in anything good happening either. A particularly good bully isolates, separates and “others” their target, all the while manipulating those above them as well as their surroundings to create the perfect environment for them to get away with their behaviour. You tell a teacher at 7 years old and you are told “no, [name] wouldn’t do that! He couldn’t have, he is about to be elected as captain of the soccer team!” or “are you sure you didn’t just misunderstand her attempt to joke with you?”, as if all you needed was a pep talk to realise that you’d misinterpreted the whole scenario. But children aren’t that silly, and more often than not children are telling the truth when they approach an adult with a tale of misfortune. We know this with better certainty than ever these days, and yet these throw away lines still come to the surface with lesser offences like schoolyard taunts and jabs. Just like for adults, it’s scary to out yourself as someone who is weak. Someone who is being “othered”. People don’t often do that without direct cause.
This next experience highlights the fact that asking for help does not always lead to a positive outcome for the victim or target, and again and again we see live examples of it actively working against that person. I was at work, young and in a shift work environment. I made friends with at level colleagues, I am friendly, polite and professional to my seniors. I like a good joke, I am pretty easy going, but I take pride in my work and also, as a young female in any industry, I am not going to appreciate sexist comments or worse still, sexual harassment, from anyone that I work with or around. So when two men in my team senior to me in years and ranking, including a direct manager, said sexually explicit and suggestive comments to me not once, not twice, but three times each (all separate incidents, all random unexpected and entirely bizarre), I got fed up. I knew that the behaviour wasn’t to be tolerated. So I wrote up time stamped summaries of what had happened, with as much detail and professional tact as I could, calling my Mum often for support and that inner grit needed to go through with this stuff. I escalated and held my breath. I had a friend come and sit with me during a meeting that was cringe-worthy and miserable. On paper, the experiences lacked the in-the-moment shock and severity that I had experienced. In a room with a senior male addressing my concerns, I felt small, like I was making a big deal over nothing. The solution put forward was as follows: I could be moved teams to a different shift line. So my “reward” for speaking up about another person’s bad behaviour was that I got to lose my friendship network that I had been building in my current team, and that these men would just continue as is. I chose to stay in my team, to put up with these men, who had been told word for word what I had said against them but not been reprimanded in any way other than perhaps to be told to give me a wide berth, as neither of them said anything to me after. But I still had to go into meeting rooms with that manager one on one and have performance conversations.
Wow, is this an uplifting read or what?! It’s OK, you just watch me turn it around from here!
One thing that will teach you how to stand up for yourself is if you go and work in an environment where you simply have no choice. I did this a few years ago, engaging directly in the criminal justice system in a prison. It was both a personal and professional goal. Personally, I knew I would get a backbone, having to go and talk to and assist people who had done the wrong thing in their lives to access legal support and community based rehab programs for their release. Professionally, I knew that it could help shape my career direction for years to come. In my time at the prison I had to tell a former neo-nazi to stop saying sexually explicit things about me, and then go in day after day to that yard and see him. I had someone spit at me and tell me they would harm me and my family, and when they had calmed down I sat with them and helped them fill out their LegalAid application form because they were unable to read and write. All of those things were environment specific and intense. But then, more often, I had people try to control me. I had people try to sweet talk me or lull me into a sense of friendship so they could take advantage of my access and privilege. I assumed everyone was trying some version of that and maintained strict professional boundaries. That approach served me well, even if it led to conflict and frustration, because when someone tries to manipulate you, and they can’t, but no one taught them any coping strategies, they fall apart.
Coming out of that time, I realised just how much it had changed the way I handled office bullies, and how successful the strategies I had learnt managing criminals and their behaviours would be in managing workplace manipulation. So here are my handling strategies for dealing with bullies in an office setting:
- Remember that you are at the table because you deserve to be there
- Consider your responses and ask if you’d be proud telling your Mum (or best friend, or whoever makes sense for you) what you said. Alternatively, would you be happy to write what you said or did up in a formal report?
- Demonstrate your self worth by cultivating positive relationships within the broader team, and if the bully has poisoned the entire well, do yourself a favour and leave for fresher pastures
- Don’t ever forget that your professional integrity is your currency. Maintain factual and accurate documentation of scenarios should you need to escalate to management or HR
- Remember that you are at the table because you deserve to be there
- If the bully is your manager, write down the behaviour/action and then beside that, flip it to be how a good manager would behave/act, now you have a positive prototype for future management of your own staff
- Put a photo of your dog at your desk, leave work on time for the gym, have brunch with your mates on the weekend, fill your cup and live a healthy and well rounded lifestyle
- Eat well and take your lunch break
- If it’s impacting your sleep, take steps to calm your brain before going to bed (bath, read, music, mindfulness, whatever works for you)
- Always remember that it is not cowardly to move away from a person or work area if it doesn’t serve you. Remember you are at the table because you chose to be there, and you deserve to be there
To be clear – None of the above is about trying to control or change that person. You can’t win that battle. You can only take care of you and try to cultivate your environment.
There is so much more to be said, but the thing I want you to take away from all of that is that the actions and behaviours of a bully are attempts to control and manipulate you. If you turn that lens on, you will find yourself in a position of power over them, because if you can stay strong to your own morals and values, continue building support networks around you that are professionally and personally fulfilling, and work as well as you possibly can at your tasks, you are going to shine over someone who is spending far too much time trying to undermine and sabotage someone. You will likely, as a weird outcome, earn the bullies grudging respect and hear them talk positively about you to others. That bit is always weird when it happens…
I try to build my professional network so that if someone came to say rubbish about me, anyone else would be genuinely surprised. I try my hardest to keep my personal opinions about people away from the workplace, friends and families are for debriefing, colleagues are for working. I refuse to try to bully a bully, I’m not good at that game so I will win on my own merit, through demonstrating my professional worth and integrity. Does that mean I don’t feel hurt from the comments? Of course not. But I do not let other people control my emotions, and I will do everything I can to cultivate a happy environment for the place that I spend so much of my time.
Let me know if you agree with me or if you think I’m crazy. Since working at the prison I have experienced people try to bully me, but to date I have experienced only the emotions of frustration and irritation at being slowed down. Since working on myself and understanding that other people’s bad behaviour are not mine to fix, my life is fuller, my life is richer, and I have more headspace for my actual work, making me a better employee… all round win I say!