The Bully-Proof Workplace

What leaders say and do matters to organizational culture – as words and actions determine the level of productivity. If an executive’s behavior is authentic, inspiring and uplifting, it can bring out the best performance of people at work. On the other hand, the leader can have an adverse reaction on productivity and employee morale. At its worst, an executive’s behavior can reach a level of bullying – an issue that has significantly increased in the workforce in recent years. Bullying has a ripple effect and can spread throughout an organization, drowning out the truth of situations, demotivating staff and decreasing efficiencies. As executive coaches, we have been privy to many stories about workplace bullying and decided to write a book on the topic to help individuals address this trending issue.

The Bully-Proof Workplace: Essential Strategies, Tips and Scripts for Dealing with the Office Sociopath offers tips, strategies and actual scripts to use with the office bully, as well as provides operating principles for preventing bullying from occurring in the first place. Here is a short description of the four types of bullies we have identified and how to cope with them in the workplace.

First, let’s start with a definition of bullying. Bullying is a repeated attempt to demean, defame, dominate or coerce another person through harassment in order to pressure the individual to give up their point of view. Targets of bullying are usually singled out based on race, ethnicity or a belief system, or simply anyone who opposes the bully’s viewpoint. Typically, bullies lie, block the truth, continuously boast about their super-normal abilities or accomplishments (whether true or not), and say or do things impulsively without self-control. To categorize bullying, you have to look at both the behavior and the consequence – as some behaviors are overt (Braggart and Brute) and some are more covert (Belier and Blocker).

Usually a bully also abuses power that is gained or given to them. They seldom feel guilt or remorse and are unaware of how they make people feel as long as others have acquiesced to his or her point of view. Bullies create a hostile work atmosphere that in turn lowers productivity. This kind of negativity can spread if the most powerful person in the room is a bully – especially if other people imitate the behavior.

Now that we’ve defined bullying, let’s look at the four types of bullies that exist. One category, the Belier, is a bully who creates an alternative and false perception of others. They tarnish the reputation of others, distort facts and tell outright lies. This is the most insidious type of bully. Slander, deception and gossip are the weapons of choice.

Dealing with a Belier: There are two ways to affect a Belier, one is to confront them and the other is to build support elsewhere in your organization to refute his/her claims. If you confront the Belier, prepare a script for the one-on-one conversation that includes specific examples of the defaming behavior. Expect an angry reaction, but do not react yourself. The Belier is typically operating out of insecurity and will likely back down after confrontation.

Another type of bully, the Blocker, thwarts what another person is trying to explain by interrupting to throw them off. This type of bully uses this verbal tactic as a way to conceal their own insecurities or lack of knowledge. They will “block input” until the other person gets exasperated. They operate out of their own feelings of inadequacy, introversion, and are obsessed with controlling the communication. Anyone who opposes this bully is subject to a one-sided rant that can go anywhere. The weapons of choice for this type of bully are defensive-listening, inflexibility and projecting negativity of intent within a conversation.

Dealing with a Blocker: Blockers are generally fearful of failure and being out of control of a situation. Dealing with a Blocker is most effective ‘in the moment’ as their blocking is typically in a meeting when work needs to be conducted. Over time, this immediate attention on the behavior should have an effect. If not, try having a direct conversation with the Blocker acknowledging what you’ve heard them say and asking for more information to better understand their viewpoint. This will likely build trust and reduce their bullying behaviors.

A third type of bully, the Braggart, is a narcissist who can portray him or herself as unique, special and self-important while they demean the efforts of others. This type of bully is preoccupied with vanity, prestige and power. He or she rolls over others by ‘over-talking’ someone who is trying to get to make a point. The bully uses tools such as ‘just trust me’ and ‘I know best’, implying they are smarter and ‘you’ are not.

Dealing with a Braggart: This type of bully thinks very highly of him or herself and their viewpoint. As a result, dealing with a Braggart requires deftly talking with them and not at them in order to spare their feelings of self-importance. Try redirecting his or her one-way communication by carefully interjecting, recognizing what they said (likely about themselves), and then changing the conversation back to the task at hand.

A fourth type of bully, the Brute, is aggressively anti-social. This kind of bully lacks self-discipline when it comes to controlling their emotions. He or she is always ready to attack and uses a domineering physicality and an angry voice to do so. They typically make nasty comments to anyone with an opposing point of view. Many people fear dealing with this type of bully as the behavior is predatory and threatening. Those on the receiving end of this type of bullying usually respond by acquiescing, which further encourages even more of this kind of intimidating behavior.

Dealing with a Brute: Brutes tend to lack both sensitivity and the ability to control their emotions. As a result, they only respond well to those who react in a calm tone/voice and strongly demonstrate that they are not going to engage in an interaction. It is a reaction that needs to again be done ‘in the moment’ of the brutish bullying behavior. Brutes are the most difficult to confront as they require patience and the ability to stay calm in the face of irrationality. To have an effective conversation with a Brute, put aside any of your emotions and address the Brute’s feelings head-on in a respectful way.

No matter which type of bullying you or a colleague might be dealing with, know that the only way to stop the behavior is to address it head on. Get comfortable with confrontation by practicing and preparing for either a one-on-one conversation or being ready to immediately address an instance of bullying when it arises. We know from our coaching practice that when bullying occurs in the workplace, especially when it flows from the top, all areas of the organization suffer.

To learn more about standing up to a bully and the different strategies or tactics to employ, pick up a copy of The Bully-Proof Workplace: Essential Strategies, Tips and Scripts for Dealing with the Office Sociopath (McGraw-Hill, March 2017).