Maybe the next generation of coworkers will be bully-free (since there's so much smart anti-bullying education out there now)—let's hope so. But for all of us grown-ups already 10, 20 or more years invested in our jobs and careers, there are still plenty of bullies around. And while the office bully might not push you into the mud and steal your lunch money, or give you an atomic wedgie in the bathroom during recess, they can be just as nefarious as the Simpson's ur-bully Nelson Muntz.
Think I'm overstating the problem? Bullying is serious enough that 24 states have laws on the books regarding office bullying, and can cause serious stress—and its related health consequences—to those who are bullied. “Workplace bullying is like domestic abuse without the physical violence,” Garie Namie, founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Washington told Prevention magazine. This behavior can happen in any job, but it's most common in already high-stress careers like law, health care and sales.
Office and workplace bullies are, unfortunately, common enough that author Jill Brooke wrote a whole book about how to deal with them. "The Need to Say 'No': How to Be Bullish and Not Be Bullied" covers the various kinds of dominating types you might find in a work environment, and offers practical ways to deal with them.
Saying no to them is a strong and empowering first step that will let you become the captain of your own ship (bullies like to drive their ships as well as others'—don't let them). She says (in the video below): "The most important thing about saying no is the following: Good people are often guilted or bullied into saying yes to many things because these bulls in the bullpens of life are trying to get people to do things for them—so they can do other things. By saying yes to things and being accommodating, it is robbing YOU of the time to think, perfect, and most importantly practice, which is the raw material of success." And that means, according to Brooke, that you should be cherrypicking what you say yes to. "Bullies respond to resistance, so don't say yes, say no," advises Brooke.
Other ways to deal with bullies include not giving them ammunition to use against you; remain neutral and don't volunteer personal information. Don't be passive or show emotion (within reason); as Brooke says above, bullies respect resistance more than friendliness—don't bother trying to get on their good side, they will just use and betray you or not respect you. Don't dismiss a bully or ignore them and do your best to 'nip it in the bud' by responding calmly, but forcefully, the first time they attempt to bully you. Keep calm, set boundaries, and keep a record of the abuse.
And the obvious solution—going to HR? It depends. If your company has a specific bullying policy, then they might be of help, but if not, a Workplace Bullying Institute survey indicates that in almost 70% of cases, human resources didn't—our coudn't—deal with a workplace bully effectively. Since the majority of bullies tend to be managers and bosses, HR might not have much power to change their ways.
"Because of fierce competition, people have become Darwinian. [But we should be] building teams based on love, not fear," says Brooke. Now only if we could convince the bullies of that idea.
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- Bullying is no game, but you can play one to stop it
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