A few weeks ago I was at a meeting with over 200 people in the room. The last item on the agenda was for the group to agree on a future meeting site and there were three locations to choose from. As the speaker began to briefly describe the second choice a familiar voice boomed his interruption from the back of the room, “Only vote for that one if you like to watch grass grow!”

There were a few chuckles and then the speaker finished his presentation and a vote was had.  As no surprise to me the second location got only four votes and I was one of them; and I think it was the lowest vote tally I had ever seen at these meetings.

I will call the guy who shut the crowd down, Jack, in honor of one of movie’s most terrifying bullies of all time. Our Jack regularly exhibits bully-like “know-it-all” and bombastic behavior at these meetings. And, in this case, his outburst helped create a weird kind of conformity behavior that resulted in a very odd choice for a location.

Bully behavior is all around us these days and dealing with it is one of the most challenging issues managers face. If you are interested in learning more about recognizing and dealing with bully-like behavior not only in subordinates, but also in other managers and supervisors, I invite you to attend a free Spectrum Consulting webinar Managing Bully Behavior in the Workplace that I will be hosting on Wednesday, March 22nd from 9 to 10. In this webinar I will look at a few case examples and talk about the steps I recommend when dealing with these behaviors.

What is Bully Behavior? I think we know bully behavior when we see it because it makes us feel uncomfortable. It makes some of us squirm and it makes some of us just try to avoid the person. Here are four examples of common bully-like behavior that I have seen-

  • The co-worker like Jack, who shuts a group down using bold statements that challenges anyone to disagree.
  • The person who interrupts and dominates conversations without having done any research just because they do not want to do something new. They want control.
  • A person who makes snide side comments during presentations that puts down the presenter or their material.
  • The passive-aggressive person who tries to bully bystanders in the shadows to put other people and ideas down. This is an adult type of “clique” or gang leader. I think this group is actually pretty common, largely ignored, and can really hurt a workplace culture.

Leaders Often Enable Bullies. Bully behavior usually begins as a relatively small action that leaders ignore. When Jack interrupts and talks down to others, we might ignore him because we want to avoid the conflict. Sometimes we even act as the bully’s negotiator after he or she pushes us to embrace their point of view and convinces us we need to talk to others. And when others complain to us about the bully’s behavior we might listen and take no action. Meanwhile everyone’s stress grows, even the bully’s. And when the bully’s stress increases his/her behavior gets worse.

Why do Bullies Act This Way? At the core of bully behavior is some sort of insecurity and they have learned over their lifetime that if they behave in a certain way they get more security. Makes sense when you think about it.

In a very interesting Forbes Magazine article Christine Comaford suggests that what bullies need is “mattering, safety, belonging.” She writes:

“Person X puts others down, makes them feel small, condescends… because inside they don’t feel they matter.

“Person Y spreads fear, rumors, negative gossip… because inside they don’t feel safe.

“Person Z talks about inequality, unfairness, how others get special treatment because inside they feel they don’t belong.”

Comaford also shares with us what she calls “The Three-Step Bully Rehab Plan.” Basically the three-steps are:

  1. Identify how you are enabling the person exhibiting bully-like behavior.
  2. Stop enabling and engage the person in a dialogue that discovers what they really want. (See Comaford’s article for more details.)
  3. Create a new, more healthy system with respectful boundaries.

Leading people who exhibit bully-like behavior is a huge challenge. However, once you learn to deal with it your first time it becomes easier when you observe it in the future.

I hope you will join us for the webinar when I will drill down into this topic more deeply.