Growing up in Israel, I recall standing silently and watching a kid in my class whose skin color was darker, being teased by other kids for being “stinky”. Yes, in Israel, the country where thousands of Jews from all over the world who endured the Holocaust and anti-semitic horror and were called “dirty” “evil” and “pigs”, were now having their grandchildren face a similar feeling of being outcasts in the Promised Land.
They say that kids can be cruel…but unfortunately, these kids also grow up. Those who don’t learn these critical life lessons later enter the workforce with the same mindset that it is ok to treat others poorly.
I am not proud of being silent in my early school days but I have learned a great deal about standing up to bullies whenever I meet them, and teach my children to do the same...even if the stakes are high.
I am inspired by Elie Wiesel who said “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
So who is a bully? Anyone who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.
In the workforce, most bullies don’t consider themselves bullies. They may call themselves “very passionate” or “results-oriented at all costs” or “my way or the highway” type managers. In reality they manage by fear, creating a work environment where people have to first look at the boss’s face in the morning, in order to know what kind of day they are about to have…
Bullies are not just the bosses, they can be our customers too. An outrageously upset customer ready to bite our heads off for a mistake that is out of our control and threaten that if we don’t fix it immediately they will have us fired. They can be our colleagues who send a nasty email and cc the entire office just to humiliate us, or post a comment on Facebook that makes us look bad.
They can be affluent board members with great intentions but poor people skills and they can also be our employees who hold a grudge over a decision we’ve made and want us to feel their pain in any possible way.
Let me be clear. Complaining is not the problem (on the contrary: constructive criticism helps us improve our performance). Being results-focused is not the problem either (after all we are a business), It is how we talk to others and how we release frustration might be the border line to being a bully. Just like we teach our children: if you keep quiet, hoping this will go away by itself or over time, the bullies win!
So here are a few ideas that you might want to try out, the next time you are facing a situation where you feel you or others have been mistreated by a workplace bully:
1) Face your fear. You are not a child anymore and are able to protect yourself and others. You are stronger than you think and a person of character. Like Viktor Frankl said “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” So the very first thing to do is..choose to act!
2) Face the beast. I believe that we should always try first to deal with the situation one on one. Have a chat with the bully and tell him/her how their behavior impacts you or others. Yes..even if that person is your boss. Often times, they are unaware of the impact they have over people. Always use specific behaviors and be detailed. For example “At the meeting yesterday, when you called me a loser in front of everyone -- this is a behavior I will not tolerate..and frankly I don’t think you would either…” or “I thought Sally was deeply hurt when you raised your voice in an unprofessional way and yelled at her for not doing her job right. I must admit to you this behavior made you look as if you are losing control”.
3) Focus on resolutions. Find out what are the triggers that make the bully blow off steam and plan a strategy for dealing with them.
4) Find resources. Should the above not help, make sure to keep records of the bullying, document time and events and report it to the HR corporate offices. Most companies will take your complaint very seriously and will deal with the bully immediately. I’ve known luxury hotels who have asked paying customers to leave property because of bad temper or treating their own staff unprofessionally.
5) Have compassion. Understand that some bullies were themselves victims of being treated poorly by their own families, environment or previous bosses. If you choose to act from a compassionate place, they might respond back positively.
6) Understand that others might simply be mean. They were mean back at school, and they are mean now in the workplace...often times these people are highly insecure about themselves. Praise yourself for seeing through that and appreciate the good foundation and confidence that you received from your own family and upbringing.
7) Take a deep breath. A really deep breath. All the way down to your core to allow some time before you act. Be strategic about your plan: two negatives don’t make a positive.
8) Find another job. If you have tried everything and nothing seems to help (ex. when the owner or founder is the bully and refuses to change), then know that you’ve done your best and there is no reason for you to spend the rest of your career putting up with this. There are plenty other places that would welcome you and treat you professionally.
Lastly, remember this “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” by Elie Wiesel.