Bullying At Work: 2 Powerful Strategies For Fighting Back
This article is about strategies for dealing with bullying at work. This is for you if you have to confront bosses, colleagues, customers, or people who are rude and insulting, are bullies, jerks, assholes, and idiots. The reality is that HR will do little to stop bullying at work. It’s up to you to develop the skills and techniques to stop this abusive behavior.
The first thing is to define what we are talking about. Bullying at work or verbal aggression is an attempt to exert social power and is different from physical aggression. Physical aggression is the use of force to defend or attack. Just as you can learn to respond to physical aggression with martial arts, you can learn how to fight back against bullying at work.
If you do not train to deal with a nasty person at work, if you don’t practice the techniques and skills described in this article, you will not defend yourself. Learning how to deal with workplace bullies is, in large part, of course, understanding the dynamics of what’s going on. It is also taking the time to prepare yourself to deal with verbal aggression. Learning how to deal with insults, misbehaviors, and bullying at work requires practice and training.
Workplace bullying is about inflicting psychological pain. The bully’s intention may be unconscious because it may just be reactive behavior to a trigger. It might be intentional with the conscious thought of causing pain, insulting, and disrespecting you.
Whether unconscious or conscious, the hallmark of bullying at work is to make you feel pain. Verbally aggressive behaviors include a loud voice, pointing a finger right in your face, and moving into your personal space.
POINTER: List the behaviors that are associated with bullying at work.
The first step is to list the behaviors associated with workplace bullies so that you can recognize them instead of being startled. When you can expect verbal aggression, you will have ways of defending yourself appropriately. If you do not take the time to study the workplace bully’s behavior, you will likely be ambushed.
Bullies intend to demean you in any way possible by communicating your worthlessness through insults, disrespect, taunts, ridicule, stereotyping, and foul language.
POINTER: Make an inventory of the kinds of words, phrases, and behaviors that make you feel worthless. Why do these words make you feel weak?
Assessing the Power of the Workplace Bully
Social power is the ability to achieve goals. A person with higher social power can either advance or thwart the ability of a less powerful person. That is fundamentally what social power is all about. Bullies rely on social power to intimidate and insult you. Once you understand what power truly is, you can easily defeat bullying at work.
Sources of Power
Social power comes in many forms. Here is a list of some of the types of social power you will encounter at work.
Information control is a source of power. If you have information that other people don’t have, you have power over them. If they don’t have the correct information, they can’t make the best decisions. Setting the agenda for a meeting, for example, is a form of information control.
Special Skills And Abilities
People with special skills and abilities may be seen as sufficiently valuable that their bullying is tolerated. Double-standards of behavior are the norm in organizations for talented employees seen as mission-critical to profitability and success.
In addition to special skills and abilities, there’s expertise. Having experience with a task, being able to understand it, understand the theories about what’s going on is a source of power.
Personal Attractiveness and Likability
Personal attractiveness and likability is a source of power. We call this charisma. People are attracted to charismatic individuals, want to associate with them, and feel good being a part of the “inner circle.”
Rewards And Threats
Rewards and threats are a source of power. If somebody can reward you with a bonus or a paycheck, they may have power over you. If someone can punish you by firing you, that is a form of power.
Threat occurs when you, as the person threatened, have inadequate power to deal with another’s power. In other words, when you are threatened, you can’t satisfy your needs because there is a person out there who is stopping your efforts to meet your needs.
Moral standing is a source of power. Gandhi used moral standing to great effect in the 1920s and 1930s through his non-violent satyagraha protests. Eventually, he persuaded the British empire to grant independence to India.
Legal standing is a source of power. If a workplace bully is part of a protected class of people, his legal standing makes workplace sanctions for verbal aggression more difficult.
Legitimacy and Recognition
Legitimacy and recognition is a source of power. When a board of directors selects a CEO, the CEO has been granted the power to lead the organization.
External support can be a source of power. If people outside of your immediate group or team support you, you have a power base that other people might not have. External support may protect you in a political environment.
A formal position can be a source of power. Examples of positional power include being the chair of a meeting, being an officer of a corporation, or being a manager in an organizational hierarchy
You may have loyal allies as a source of power. These are people who can come to your aid, help you, advise you, and provide you moral and physical support.
Persuasive skills are a source of power when used correctly.
You may have control over critical group possessions and resources. Imagine a decision was made at the highest part of a company, requiring a purchasing agent to acquire materials. The purchasing agent slowed down the process, causing the whole project to fail. The purchasing agent held power.
When you have control over critical group possessions and group resources, even if you’re very low in the hierarchy, you still have power. Remember that hierarchy and power are often unrelated in many ways. Don’t think that because you’re at the top of the hierarchy, you have all the power. Don’t think that because you’re at the bottom, you have no power.
Identify The Bully’s Power Sources
Take some time to analyze the nasty person’s power sources. Identify who has high power and who has low power. It’s not always what you think it is.
How do you assess power?
Here are three useful questions.
What are the bully’s primary resources? Identify what you think the bully’s sources of power really might be. You might be surprised at how little power is there. There might be a lot, but it’s often not nearly as much as the bully thinks there is.
And here’s another important consideration.
Why are you assuming you’re the low powered party? What are your primary resources? Identify them. Think about how you can bring your power to bear when victimized by bullying at work. You will be amazed at how much power you have if you start thinking about it in these terms.
Once you’ve identified the primary power resources, you can sort out the relative power positions.
- How is the jerk’s power vital to me?
- What is the bully blocking that I need?
- Do I have alternatives other than through this asshole to get my needs met?
- And is this really all that important? Or am I just getting sucked into a social narrative that turns out to be fundamentally false?
Most of the time, the answer is you are being sucked into a social contract that you made with society many years ago. It’s not relevant to this moment right now, and you’re being taken advantage of. Once you recognize that, you can move away from it, and you can diffuse the aggression quite quickly.
What are the effects of power? In other words, when the bully exercises power in the form of aggression, what happens? How is the use of power manifesting?
Is it because the workplace bully feels that status confers the apparent right to scream and yell at you? What is the effect if the jerk is coequal with you?
Does the bully have allies? Does the bully have external support? What is it?
After you practice this for a while, you’ll be able to do this on the fly. You will understand the effects of power, and you’ll see it in motion.
Assessing power will give you ideas for interventions. Who’s acting most conservatively?
Smart people with a lot of power, rarely exercise their power. Smart people with power will conserve their power because they recognize that exercising it is costly and expensive. They may exude power, but they will never use it. They will never threaten to use it except in the most extreme cases.
In contrast, when dealing bullying at work, you are facing an asshole who is not acting conservatively. He doesn’t have as much power as he thinks he does.
Look at the power tactics that are being manifested. Are there threats, rewards, or punishment? Is the bully asserting higher status over you by making you feel worthless? Is the bully making you feel lucky to have a job? Maybe the idiot is expressing entitlement to all of those things.
Analyze all of these behaviors from a power tactics perspective. The veil will be lifted from your eyes as you start to see what’s going on. It’s really quite remarkable when you see it. And as you practice this and see how workplace bullies are really behaving, you’ll become a lot calmer because the chaos that you’re seeing is very predictable.
Sometimes you’ll see a denial of power. It could be something like, “How dare you do that without talking to me.” Or, “Who the hell you think you are?” What they are doing is denying you power, which is a common power tactic. When that kind of insulting, disrespectful outburst occurs, think to yourself, “This person is trying to take away my power. Am I letting that happen?”
You would be amazed at how things shift when you do a power analysis of a workplace jerk. Obviously, if you haven’t done this work before you are subjected to bullying, you’re not going to have any tools to work with. Defeating bullying at work requires thinking ahead of time. If you’ve been subjected to verbal abuse in your workplace, it’s going to happen again. You might as well take the time to analyze the power relationships.
Verbal aggression, of course, involves self-esteem and status. If you have low self-esteem, you may not have the psychological resources to resist workplace bullying. Your self-esteem is critical in dealing with aggression. If you are easily intimidated and are not self-confident, consider confidence training, coaching, or therapy. There is nothing wrong with getting help to make you stronger and more resilient.
Status may be at play. You may be a mailroom clerk, for example. The CEO is screaming at you because you didn’t get a piece of mail to her in an appropriate moment, even though it wasn’t your fault. Some workplace bullies will think that just because their victim has a lower status, they can intimidate. Not true, but you need to be thinking about that. What are the status positions necessary for verbal aggression to be effective?
There has to be some kind of reward and punishment system. In other words, the workplace bully has to have some ability to punish you or reward you. What are those punishments and rewards? Write them down.
Bullying also requires you, if you’re the victim, to accept the social system that you’ve been placed in. If you don’t accept the social structure offered by the bully, she has no power over you.
Make The Bully’s Power Unimportant To You
Here’s the secret: If you render the workplace bully’s source of power unimportant, she has no power over you. That’s how you get rid of the bully’s power and obnoxious behavior. Make it all irrelevant. When you truly understand this, you will experience liberation. It is an exhilarating moment.
One way to do this is to examine what the nasty person is offering. You look at what punishment the bully can dish out to you, and you decide how important that is to you.
Now, it may be that you say, “Well, I really can’t afford to get fired because I’ve need a job.”
If you thoroughly analyzed the situation, you might find that the threat of being fired is ephemeral. You may discover that you have a lot of power because you have special skills, knowledge, expertise, and experience. You are either too valuable to be fired, or your skills are desirable in the marketplace.
Most people think they’re locked into where they are, but they aren’t. They are locked into their social conditioning. If you can break that social conditioning, then you can break the stranglehold of power that people, especially verbally aggressive people, think they have on you.
Discursive Positioning-The Master Secret To Stopping Bullying At Work
Discursive positioning is an advanced and sophisticated technique for dealing with nasty people and bullying at work. Essentially, discursive positioning describes how we compete with each other for status and power in our everyday communication.
We begin with some basic understanding of human communication and relationships.
Human beings communicate with each other through utterances. These are sounds that we have commonly agreed to have symbolic meaning. Utterances represent things and ideas. They can be abstract, or they can be concrete. Over the 250,000 years since human language arose, rules developed to make human communication work. The rules are hidden but govern every aspect of interpersonal relationships.
Each utterance defines a relationship between the speaker and the listener. When you start paying attention to this, you will be amazed at how we unconsciously structure our relationships with each other by how we talk. This social relationship is incredibly dynamic.
We’re constantly balancing self esteem and face-saving with the esteem of other people. In eastern cultures, this is taught to children as explicit rules of behavior. In western cultures, the rules are implicit. Children are expected to learn the rules by emulation.
Each utterance sets up relative speaking rights. We learned very early on as children not to interrupt. When we are speaking, we do not expect to be interrupted. We also expect that the person who is listening will not start talking until we have finished speaking. We also learned that we have to take turns in conversation. The right to speak is basically created by turn-taking — you speak first, now it’s my turn to speak.
Any utterance also legitimates topics of conversation. If we accept the premise of the utterance, it becomes a legitimate topic of conversation, even if it might otherwise be taboo or forbidden.
There’s a negotiation going on in every conversation. And all kinds of things are being negotiated back and forth. We’re not even aware that it’s going on, but it’s what we’ve learned to do since the time we began talking.
The most important negotiation in conversation is about relational positioning because people seek favorable relational positions for themselves.
Favorable relationships can mean all kinds of things. It could mean that I want my wife to love me. It could mean that I want to impress somebody. It could mean that this person is trying to impress me. Maybe one of my graduate students is trying to impress me. These favorable relational positions may be apparent, but they can also be subtle. This positioning occurs all the time and is called discursive positioning.
The workplace bully attempts to establish a discursive position of moral authority. The logic is, “I’m morally superior to you. Therefore I have the right to insult, belittle, disrespect, and ridicule you because I’m a better person than you. You are worthless.”
Here’s an example:
“I can’t believe how stupid you are! You screwed up again. You are such an idiot!”
The speaker has created a story that you are worthless. This story is a narrative that the bully wants you to accept.
Most of the time, victims of verbal aggression choose to accept the narrative because of social conditioning.
But a claim of entitlement does not mean that it is valid.
Reject The Workplace Bully’s Narrative.
Here’s the excellent news. I’m giving you permission to reject that narrative.
The moment you decline that narrative, the aggression goes away. It will no longer have an effect on you. Once you do this, your position vis-a-vis bullying at work completely changes.
Why do people fall into this trap? First, as human beings, we’re hierarchical. From the time we were little babies in our families of origin, we have lived in a hierarchy. As children, we learned very quickly that whoever has the most power wins. When we went to school, there was a hierarchy with teachers and principals. When we started in sports, we learned about coaches, team captains, different positions, and differing abilities, all of which was hierarchal.
We learned how to navigate all these hierarchies. We learned how to position ourselves within these hierarchies to fit in, to be accepted, and to not cause problems.
We have been conditioned to accept that people higher in the hierarchy have the right to create the narrative. That is false. Jerks intuitively know that they can take advantage of the pecking order. You do not have to accept their narrative. In fact, you should never accept a workplace bully’s narrative.
When you learn how to reject the narrative, everything changes.
The question that you have to answer is whether or not you want to accept the offered position. When you are belittled by a jerk at work, here’s the implicit offer:
“I’m insulting you. I’m disrespecting you. You are not worth anything. You’re worthless. You are a worthless human being who has totally angered me and is not worthy of breathing the same air that I’m breathing.”
Here’s the secret. The insult is just an offer, and you can reject it.
Consider this classic piece of discursive positioning:
“Look, I’m just trying to be reasonable here.”
This offer is really saying, “I’m reasonable. You are unreasonable. I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m going to win. You’re going to lose. I’m morally superior to you because only reasonable people can be morally superior. You’re morally inferior because I’m trying to be reasonable, and you’re not.”
Think of all of the offers that are implicit in that short statement. When you hear something like this, your radar has to go up. You have to say to yourself, “Wait a minute, I’m being offered a discursive position that I may not want to accept.”
The way to respond to this is reject the position by offering a different position. You might say,
“Well, you know, it’s really not about reasonableness. It’s about following the rules.”
“It’s really not about whether you or I are reasonable. What’s really important is whether or not we can get the outcome that we need for our client.”
“You know, well, that’s interesting that you’re trying to be reasonable, but I don’t see where reason has anything to do with this. We have a job to do, and this is what it is now.”
In each response, you rejected the position being offered and offered a different position. That’s the secret to dealing with bullying at work. You’re not going to be able to stop a verbally aggressive person from being verbally aggressive. But what you can do is change the discursive position. You will see amazing things happen around you when you learn how to do that.
How To Use Discursive Positioning to Defeat Bullying At Work
First, analyze what calls are being offered. When you think about assholes who are verbally aggressive towards you, what are they offering you? What position are they putting you into? Of course, it’s going to be a position of less entitlement, of humiliation, of being worthless, but be explicit about it.
Watch how your colleagues deal with discursive positioning. Do they accept the offer the bully makes to the appease? Do they run away? Do they get defensive? If yes, they are accepting the bully’s discursive position. They’re not refusing it.
This is where your preparation comes in. You know where the workplace bully is coming from. What position do you want to establish for yourself?
Start role-playing, writing out, and practicing responses that reposition who you are, vis-a-vis the bully. It’s different for every person, and it’s always contextual.
You may provide other positions to the workplace bully. You may want to lead the bully into another discourse based upon the opportunities you create. You would just make statements such as, “Well, you’re outraged. And so this is what I’m going to do….” You make declarative statements. There’s nothing to be done about it as long because the options you’re offering are appropriate under the circumstance. You take the wind out of the bully’s sails.
And at the end of the day, you can always say no. You can say, “That tone of voice is inappropriate. I’m not going to listen to this anymore,” and leave. And say, “When your emotions are under control, and you’re willing to have a civil conversation with me, then I will listen to you. You are not entitled to yell at me, insult me, taunt me, or ridicule me. I don’t care who you are, and I’m leaving. And when you calm down, you can come to talk to me. I will be more than willing to work with you to solve whatever problem you might have right now.”
Think about the discursive positioning that’s going on in that statement and what you are asserting.
“I am not buying into this worthlessness stuff. You are not acting appropriately. And I am taking the moral high road here because you are acting immorally by being verbally aggressive. I am willing to continue our relationship when you are willing to meet me on my terms.”
It takes courage to do that, but the alternative is to be a victim.
Wrapping Up How To Deal With Bullying At Work
Whew! You made it to the end. We covered a lot and gave you much to think about. Here’s what you learned.
First, bullying at work can be analyzed from the perspective of relative social power. When you perform a power analysis, you will find that the jerks and assholes have far less power than they project. Just because they are higher in the hierarchy does not mean they have power over you. All you have to do is make the power irrelevant to you.
Admittedly, this takes practice and confidence. If you are unwilling to practice, accept continued victimization. If you suffer from a lack of confidence or low self-esteem, get help. You can learn how to build your confidence and self-esteem. You can engage a life coach or even get therapy from a good counselor. You do not have to be mired in the mud of self-loathing unless you choose.
Second, insults, taunts, and threats are simply offers that you are free to reject. Do not let your social conditioning compel you to accept a morally inferior position. Think about what other positions you might offer a workplace bully. Be aware of the role of discursive positioning in every conversation, especially bullying at work. Master the skill of discursive positioning, and you will defeat every jerk, asshole, bully, and idiot that tries to ruin your day.