“He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.” ~ Lao-tzu
Most people either endure working with a bully or leave their job, even if they love what they do. After all, it’s risky to stand up to a bully due to the possibility of retaliation and the potential negative impact on one’s health. While each situation is unique, this post highlights my interview with Donna (not her real name) who stood up to the office bully when her employer wouldn’t. Her story demonstrates how bullies appear to be powerful, but you are more powerful when you are in control of your response to them.
What Prompted the Bullying
Donna described how the situation got started:
I work in a male-dominated profession where the mindset is that women are inferior to men.
Despite this culture, I was promoted to the lead in my area. As soon as I was in this position, some of my male co-workers pushed back, resisted, and convinced the higher up management to restrict my responsibilities. The biggest obstacle was with one coworker who had an issue with me from previous years when he was disciplined for a safety violation. As a witness to this co-worker’s actions, I testified in the investigation of the incident. Weeks prior to the hearing, he continuously contacted me, trying to talk me into lying for him, which I wouldn’t do. After the hearing was over, this person and several of his friends, who also believed I should have lied, aligned against me. That’s when the bullying began. From covert intimidation to being yelled at in front of co-workers, this co-worker had it out for me.
Learning to Fight the Battle Solo
Donna went on to tell me how, sadly, she realized she was on her own in dealing with the intimidation.
Early on, I decided I wasn’t going to allow myself to be intimidated for doing what I knew was right. I requested a meeting with the co-worker and our boss. As soon as the meeting began, the co-worker made derogatory comments to me with a condescending tone. I looked at our boss and said: “Are you going to let him behave like this?” Our boss did nothing.
Realizing what I was up against, I started to leave with the intention to go straight to HR, but something inside stopped me. I decided to stay at the meeting, yet nothing was resolved. I walked out of that meeting and realized the higher-ups were scared of this co-worker. I knew I was going to have to fight this battle solo.
Why I Didn’t Report the Bullying to Human Resources
She gave me some more details about why she decided not to press the issue further with management and HR:
I continued with the meeting for a few reasons. First, I knew if I walked out, I’d look back at that moment with regret, wondering “what if” I stayed and “what if” I tried harder. I wouldn’t be at peace not knowing how the meeting could have turned out and that I made every effort to resolve the issues. Second, I didn’t want to allow a moment of emotion to control my purpose. I didn’t want to react “in the heat of the moment” and have regrets once I calmed down. Third, I didn’t want this man to have control over me and to push me out of a job that I loved. Despite getting no support from our boss, I stayed in the meeting to take back my control.
From that point on, I realized I had no support from my employer. In any direction that I turned, it became glaringly obvious it was up to me to protect myself. I chose to stay in the job because I love what I do and wasn’t going to allow anyone to take that from me. I then changed my strategy from asking for help from my employer to relying on only myself to pull myself out of this situation. Deciding to take matters into my own hands was a defining moment.
Courage and Intentional Strategies
Donna described to me how she summoned her courage and developed an intentional – and ultimately effective – strategy for managing the situation on her own:
I knew I had to be strategic about how I dealt with the bully. My strategy was to have my competence and credibility to speak for themselves and to show the value I brought to the team.
I approached every situation with a positive attitude, keeping my emotions in check. I knew if I approached a situation in a demanding or emotional manner, it would make the tension worse. I was willing to consistently do the work that no one else wanted to do, behind the scenes. At times, I even allowed the bully to take credit for my ideas. I always knew when it was happening, and I chose my words, the timing, and the setting to speak up in order to minimize being a threat to the bully’s competence.
Six Long Years Before Change Occurred
Here’s Donna’s amazing account of how her courage, competence, and endurance paid off in the end:
My strategy took six years before something was done with the bully. During that six years, there were some periods of reprieve during which the bully lightened up. Nevertheless, I was walking on eggshells for most of that time frame, never knowing when the next attack would be.
The turning point came when senior leadership recognized my contribution and gave me more responsibility. As I built trust with them, I told them what had been going on. Soon thereafter, someone intervened to resolve the problem that had been avoided by our immediate manager. The coworker who once bullied me became friendly. I don’t know what occurred, but his demeanor changed toward me.
Now I’ve been given more responsibility and invited to upper management meetings where my input is sought after. I’m treated as an equal part of the team and trusted to do what is best for our department. Everything I wanted has happened!
Are You the Target of a Workplace Bully?
Are you in a work situation where you’re the office bully’s target? Do you feel like you walk on eggshells, anticipating being yelled at during staff meetings? Blamed for something you didn’t do?
Donna decided to focus on changing the only person she could change – herself – with three primary strategies.
Donna’s Anti-Bully Strategies:
1. Identify Your Ultimate Goal
Donna’s ultimate goal was to stay in the job that she loved without letting the bully get the best of her. She anticipated the bullying behaviors and stayed focused on staying true to her work ethic. No matter the consequences, she chose to fight for what was right. Motivated to stand up to the bully for the benefit of future coworkers, as well as her own, Donna took control of what she could to rectify the situation and disempower the bully from continuing.
What is your ultimate goal? What can you control to achieve your goal?
2. Let Your Actions Speak Louder than Words
Growing up, Donna was the youngest of six children and often felt brushed aside. She wasn’t taken as seriously because her siblings assumed she didn’t know as much as they did because she was the youngest. However, now that they’re all adults, Donna’s siblings come to her for advice!
She viewed the workplace bullying situation through that same lens. In her upbringing, she went from being dismissed to being respected, so she knew that it was possible for perceptions to change. She truly believed that staying true to who she was and living that way every day would lead to others realizing she could be trusted.
It happened in her family. It happened again in her work situation. It can happen for you, too!
What experience, or “proof,” do you have from your background or upbringing that your actions speak louder than your words? Use that for motivation and get clear on your purpose and sticking to it.
3. Take Control of Your Mindset and Health
Donna’s story shows that she didn’t allow her emotions to run the show. In order to achieve that equanimity, she became very intentional about taking care of herself mentally, emotionally and physically. This helped her stay motivated and prevented her from reacting out of emotion when the retaliation occurred.
For example, every night, she journaled to reflect on the day’s events as a way to get the negativity out of her head and onto the paper. Journaling also helped her gain self-awareness, so she showed up every day at her best.
Additionally, she consistently told herself, “I will get through this,” which reminded her to keep her head up and brace for what she needed to face. She remained focused on the fact always doing the right thing meant there would be no legitimate reason for her to lose her job. That is, the bullies couldn’t push her out because they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.
At the same time, she told herself that if she did somehow lose her job, “so be it.” She knew that she would still have her own peace of mind for taking a stand and always doing the right thing.
What can you build into your day to process your feelings and protect your mental health?
Opportunity for Growth
“Every situation, every moment, provides the opportunity for self-growth and development of your character.” ~ author, and founder of Constructive Living David K. Reynolds, Ph.D.
It wasn’t the elimination of the difficult circumstances that kept Donna going. It was her willingness and courage to face the situation as an opportunity for self-growth and character development, regardless of what was going on around her. Although during the six years of bullying, it may have seemed the bully was powerful, Donna’s self-awareness and character were ultimately more powerful.
Want Some Help?
If you’re facing a bully in your work setting, schedule an appointment with Bonnie to help you decide your best course of action.
Workplace Conflict Expert Bonnie Artman Fox, MS, LMFT, works with executive leaders and team managers who want to stop divisive behaviors, resolve conflict, and build the team trust needed to create a healthy work culture. Contact Bonnie to help your employees get along and bring teams together.