This post is the third and final post in a series of articles about bully leadership. If you missed Part 1, click here...> and if you missed Part 2, click here...>.
A recently published survey by the Society of Human Resource Management found that 51% of organizations report “bullying incidents” in the workplace. And this doesn’t include unreported or ignored bully behavior. So, it is very likely during your working career that you are going to encounter bullying that you should deal with.
Here are a few suggestions for dealing with bullies on your team and bully bosses.
How to Deal With Bullies on Your Team. If you want to be an effective leader, you should commit yourself to dealing with bullies and not avoiding them. There are three reasons you have to deal with bully subordinates on your team.
First, they will undermine the success of your team. When you have bullies on your team their selfish behavior infects their co-workers and no one really wants to work on the team’s common objectives. Ultimately you lose your credibility because everyone knows you aren’t dealing with the bully.
Second, if you don’t deal with the bully on your team other employees may file a “hostile work environment” complaint, which can have legal ramifications for your organization.
Third, and finally, if you don’t deal with a bully subordinate you may later have to deal with a violent conflict in your workplace. We all may remember how Ralphie beats up Farkus in The Christmas Story. Unfortunately, this does happen in the workplace when a person reaches their boiling point. I was involved last week in an investigation we were doing on behalf of a client where just this kind of human “explosion” occurred. Also, sadly, violence can lead to death. A few years ago one of our clients had an employee kill another employee outside the factory where they worked. This is the kind of violence no leader wants to have happen.
Steps for Dealing with a Bully on Your Team
- Discuss the bully behavior with your supervisor and human resources professional. Prepare a plan for dealing with the behavior.
- The plan should include:
- a. Confronting the bully and letting them know their behavior won’t be tolerated. Be prepared to give behavioral examples.
- b. Don’t let the bully turn the situation around and try to make it your fault.
- c. Make it clear what behaviors you expect.
- d. Let them know what the ramifications are if they behave like a bully again. (Ramifications or progressive discipline will vary by organization.)
- e. Watch-out for passive-aggressive behavior. For example, with real bullies you want to be careful with positive reinforcement. When you see them properly control themselves in a situation where they would have misbehaved in the past, you want to let them know you were pleased with what they did, their behavior. However, beware that they might behave nicely in front of you, but not so behind your back. Just be on the watch for other behaviors.
- f. Respond immediately if you become aware of the bully behavior again. Follow-through with the progressive discipline you outlined earlier.
- g. Finally, remind all team members to report bully behavior by anyone to you.
How to Deal with Bully Bosses. If you have a boss who regularly exhibits bully behavior toward you, you owe it to yourself, and others, not to ignore it. At this point I know what you’re thinking, “makes sense in theory, but it’s much tougher when it’s actually happening to me.” Naturally you are worried about losing your job, but think longer term. Do you really enjoy working for this person and would you want to stay working for this person long-term? When you wrestle with this question you realize the only way you can possibly improve the situation is to address it.
Hara Marano in her article, “Dealing with a Bully Boss”, published in Psychology Today, recommends these 10 useful steps for dealing directly with the bully boss. These tips can be useful when dealing with other bullies, too.
- Confront the bully. "I'm sorry you feel you have to do that but I will not put up with that kind of behavior. It has no place here." It can be startlingly effective. A bully can't bully if you don't let yourself be bullied.
- Conduct the confrontation in private -- behind closed doors. A bully won't back down in front of an audience.
- Specify the behavior that's unworkable. "You cannot just fire from the hip and demean me in front of other workers."
- Don't play armchair psychologist. Focus the discussion on specific behaviors, not theories of why you think the boss does it.
- Make your boss aware of the consequences of his or her behavior on others. "I've been noticing how Peter seems so demoralized lately. I think a contributing factor may be last week's meeting when you ridiculed him for producing an inadequate report."
- Awareness is good but not enough; help your boss figure out what to do. Specify the behavioral change you want and supply an example of desirable behavior -- from the boss' own repertoire of actions. Jump in with "I can recall a month ago when you were ... lavish in your praise of that new assistant," or whatever.
- Point out how the boss' behavior is seen by others. "You embarrass me when you publicly humiliate me in a meeting, but you also embarrass yourself. You're demonstrating your weakness."
- Try humor. If you point out to your boss that she's acting like a cartoon caricature; that may be enough to make her aware.
- Recruit an ally or allies. Standing up for yourself can stop a bully by earning his/her respect. But it could also cost your job. The higher your boss is in the organization, the more you need allies. Check out with other workers whether the behavior you are experiencing is generalized. If it is, it's easier for two or three people to confront a boss than one alone.
- If you are important to the organization, you may accomplish your goal by going to your boss' boss.
A word of caution – often, mid-level bully leaders only pick on subordinates and are careful to treat their supervisors more professionally – they can be master manipulators. (This is called Pecksniffian behavior after the character Seth Pecksniff in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit.) I can still remember hearing Eddie Haskell calling poor little Beaver “a little squirt” in one breathe and when their mother came into their room Eddie said, “you look lovely today, Mrs. Cleaver.” If you believe your boss has a serious bully behavior problem, I recommend that you communicate with HR and your boss’s boss during the process.
While most of us will never have to deal with such pathological bullies as Rush and the cruel dictators we read about around the world, we will likely have to deal with a few bullies among us. In our quest to be credible leaders, we must first make sure we don’t bully and then deal with bully behavior in others. Taking on this challenge will make the world a better place.