Beating a bullying boss

May 06 2009 by Brian Amble Print This Article

The Working Week podcast hits a milestone this week as we post the 100th edition of Wayne Turmel's consistently excellent look at the world of work in all its guises. And for the 100th show, we tackle the issue that is the most common subject of questions sent to our advice clinic and features prominently in questions and comments made on the site. That issue is the perennial scourge of bullying bosses.

This week, Wayne is joined by Robert Mueller, a lawyer and author of A Survivor's Guide: How to Transcend the Illusion of the Interpersonal

Just how big a problem is bullying? What sort of behaviors bullying? What sort of people are bullies. And – critically – how do you beat a bully?

One of Robert's more controversial assertions is that bullying can't be tackled through psychological means - it need to be viewed and tackled as a business issue. He also asserts that context is all-important. For example, what might be acceptable or normal on a construction site could be completely unacceptable in an office environment – and visa-versa.

Personal confrontations with bullies are almost never productive, he argues, nor is trying to talk to management or – still less - HR. That's because management will most likely interpret any confrontation an employee might have with a boss as being a confrontation with them, and without well-documented proof of a pattern of behavior, they will likely view the employee as the problem.

Since you'll never defeat a bully on their own ground, what can you do? Robert argues you need a sound, methodical strategy. You need to document, document, document. Collect data. Approach your bullying problem like a work project. Be methodical in how you behave, perform, document, and strategize.

Jot down just the key details. Put them on an incident report form or file them on cards. Note the time, date, place, people, key quotes and behavior of concern. All bullies create patterns in what they do, Robert says. And bullying is not about what happened on a particular day. It's a campaign conducted over time.

Document even the smallest incidents, since these often become the most important signs of a pattern of bullying that might not otherwise be apparent. That means every instance of teasing, sarcasm, criticism, a public glare or silent treatment.

Don't let yourself get isolated. Every day, pick out someone you haven't talked to for a while. Have a brief but focused, attentive conversation that focuses on them. Bullies work hard to alienate targets from their coworkers. Don't let that happen to you.

To earn the support of others, support them first. A bully will try to isolate you, but they are limited by the fact that they are unable to connect with others. That's what makes them a bully. But you can offer real support to others, whether work-related or no. That's how to build influence and – at the same time- start to erode the bully's powerbase.

Another of Robert's tips is to look for other work but not necessarily to take another job. Nothing fosters strength and good humor in a negative environment better than the freedom to leave it.

Similarly, try to build self-esteem and a positive attitude. Pay attention to how your appearance. Have a comfy chair in your office for coworkers. Make your personal space an oasis of calm and taste.

During a bullying situation, excuse yourself. Don't beat a hasty retreat, and don't leave the building. Tell your abuser that you're late for an appointment with HR, for example. Or casually excuse yourself to the restroom. Never enter the restroom if you are being pursued by a bully.

But that's not to say you shouldn't try distracting your abuser. Pick up something physical - as long at it's not a threatening item - such as a critical file that needs the bully's attention or a note with an important phone number that needs to be called.

Finally, remember to protect your personal information. Tell bullies as little as possible about your life, family, friends, hobbies, interests, religion, and so on. Information about you gives them power. But equally, gathering information about them will give you the tools you need to defend yourself and prove your case.

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