Workplace Wisdom

The Bully Pulpit, Part V: Can the Group Bring a Bully Into Line?

Can a work group resolve a bully problem without the intervention or support of senior management? Several readers raised this question with the concern that it can be inconvenient, impractical, or downright useless to try to get a senior exec involved.

It’s very difficult to change a bully’s behavior. It’s hard for bullies to give up the nasty business that has “worked” for them for so long, or for them to recognize that they’re hurting others. Workplace bullies usually think they’re merely doing what needs to be done to get results. From their perspective, if other people feel pressured, it’s because “Those weaklings don’t understand what’s necessary for success!”

Patterns Are Tough to Break

Bullying is a persistent pattern, not a one-time event, so it’s unrealistic to expect that a bully could be reformed in a single interaction. Modifying a bully’s behavior takes planning and coordination — and plenty of patience — which can make it a real challenge to convince a group that the effort is worth it.

It can also be hard to get the group to acknowledge that their tolerance of the bully’s behavior is actually damaging to the group’s overall success — and not just to the bully’s individual victims. The expression “Silence condones” is relevant here: Many witnesses tend to go on “mute” and look away, either because they’re embarrassed for the victim or afraid of attracting the bully’s ire and attention.

But bullies often believe they have the group’s support specifically because everyone is quiet. That’s why we were often told to fight back on the playground: Walking away — or looking away — can confirm a bully’s perceptions of power and primacy.

How the Group Can Intervene

It’s crucial for the group to erode that apparent support instead of letting it become the norm. That requires speaking up — preferably in the meeting itself, or at least in front of witnesses — to call the bully on the bullying behavior. But it doesn’t have to be a grandstanding outburst: “Billy Bully, the rest of us will no longer tolerate your picking on Joe!”

Instead, try something more measured and almost off-handed, because drama or histrionics only encourage the bully to tune out the feedback. A low-key approach is more likely to work: “Okay, Billy Bully, we’ve got your message. You disagree with Joe’s analysis/methodology/proposal and prefer X. Now let’s move on to subject #2…” (And if possible, give a specific topic that’s fairly neutral and includes facts, data, and evidence — not opinion.)

Why does this work? It’s not that it wakes the bully up to the problem he’s causing or the inappropriateness of his behavior — not at all — but it may serve as momentary placation because it acknowledges the bully’s point of view or position.

Show Group Strength

And what it really accomplishes is to demonstrate to other members of the group that it’s possible to disagree with the bully and survive. The goal is to encourage people to start alerting the bully that they prefer — and will respond to — a different approach. Eventually you’ll reach a critical mass of folks who participate in this public boundary-setting; together, you’ll gradually nudge the bully away from the victims and toward more positive behaviors.

Of course, it helps if there are members of the group who have such a strong sense of self-confidence, fairness, or morality that they’re willing to speak up no matter what the bully’s reaction is.

On the other hand, whether you’re a victim or a bystander, if the majority of the group actively supports the bully and piles on, speak up if you can — but start looking for a senior ally or a safe exit!

Onward and upward,

LK

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