Leadership Perspectives

7 things to know about how to deal with a bully

Marie Peeler

After a conference recently, where I gave a talk on emotional intelligence, I received an email requesting advice on dealing with a boss that “lacks self-awareness, is quick to anger, and vents their frustration on whoever is around.”

In other words, the writer wanted to know how to deal with a bully.

We’ve all experienced the bully boss or client.  Sometimes the behavior is subtle and sometimes it is overt and over-the-top.  If you hold your breath in the morning until your boss speaks and you can assess his mood, you may be dealing with a bully.

It’s the boss that says she wants fresh ideas and to be challenged and then belittles anyone who suggests anything remotely creative or different from the status quo.  It’s the client that overpowers conversations by sheer power of his position or that screams first and (maybe) asks questions later.

Leaders are not immune from being bullied themselves.  Anyone who has a boss, a client, or anyone else with leverage over them is a potential victim of bullying.  Sometimes bullies are being bullied themselves (you know the proverbial stuff that runs downhill.)

But what do you do if you need to survive and keep your sanity while working with a bully?

I could not give my email writer specific guidance for dealing with her bully; each bully and their motivations are different.  But there are a few things that you and she can keep in mind when dealing with a bully.

  1. Directly contradicting the bully won’t work. “You are wrong” or even “That’s wrong” delivers an oppositional force that only incites the other person to push with more force.  Moving with them, to deflect the attack (think Aikido here), can be more effective.  “I see your point.  Let me share my opinion.” can be more effective.
  2. Staying calm and professional is in your best interest. Nothing provides a bully with fuel more than matching their steam.  Not only does it spur them on but you can even be held accountable for your behavior while the bully gets off scot-free.  A client, notorious for bad behavior, once complained about an employee who “didn’t even have the decency to say good-by” and simply “hung up on me” because at the end of a particularly frustrating conversation, the employee said “Alright.    I’ll get on it and get back to you” and hung up the phone.  By the time the incident was run all the way up the flag pole, the story of the employee’s rudeness to the client was well established to the ire of the frustrated bullied employee.
  3. Don’t be submissive. While you want to avoid being curt or going on the offensive when attacked, being subservient or cowed won’t serve you either.  Bullies especially like beating people when they are down so watch your posture, hold your chin up, and don’t allow your back to slump or your chest to ‘cave in’.  Speak in a clear, calm, strong voice.  Remember, other people are watching and how you handle yourself during an attack speaks volumes about you, just as the bully’s bad behavior speaks volumes about them.
  4. Breaking the trance can help. Sometimes providing a distraction such as changing position, standing when you have been sitting, sitting when you’ve been standing, or opening the window, can interrupt the other person’s flow. Just be sure not to execute any movements that could be perceived as threatening.  (such as picking up anything heavy or weapon-like.)
  5. Sometimes you CAN reason with a bully. Most bullies justify their actions and don’t see themselves as bullies.  If you wait until the person is calm and speak to them later about their reaction, make sure to observe all the previous points.  The key is not to attack or judge them but to simply give them an opportunity to tell you what is going on for them and to request what you need.  I once took a new job where the number two client appeared to be a certifiable nut.  But by listening to her concerns and calmly and professionally showing some backbone, it took about a year, but I was able to curb her bullying and ask for what I needed which was for her to stop screaming at my staff and call me if she had a problem.
  6. Sometimes, it is best to just leave. I hesitate to say this because I think that too often we take the easy way out in picking up our toys and leaving.  Many bullies can be tamed with the right amount of emotional intelligence, time, and perseverance. But there are times when nothing you have done has made a difference and it’s time to cut your losses by getting out from under that bullying boss or firing that bully client.
  7. Whatever you do, remember that it is not about you. It truly is not.  Even if you do something wrong or something that results in the other person becoming angry, their angry reaction is about them, their mental state, and their patterns of reaction.  Remembering this can sometimes help you keep your center in the midst of the turmoil that bullies generate.