January 24, 2008
Beating back the office bully
CLAUDIA GOETZELMANN / AP
The power of bullies
Workplace bullies wouldn't exist if organizations didn't reward them. Robert Sutton, a Stanford University management professor and author of "The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't," wants employers to know that jerks do their companies more harm than good.
Q: How do bullies gain their power?
A: There's literature that says people who act powerful and angry are more likely to be seen as powerful. And if someone is a star, we look the other way.
Q: Why doesn't management stop bullies?
A: The societal standard is that it's acceptable to be an asshole as long as you're a winner. But they tend to be less effective at leading organizations. They can drive good people out.
I have a list on my Web site of organizations that actually do stop them [including Seattle law firm Perkins Coie].
SuccessFactors [a California software company] has you sign a statement saying you won't be an asshole, and they fire you if you are.
Bullies and their tactics
The tormentors' motivation is always control, which they exercise in different ways:
The screamer uses rage and temper tantrums to intimidate, preferably when others can witness it.
The snake is the most common, but hardest to identify. She's a behind-the-scenes bully, appearing friendly and supportive in person while smearing your reputation among co-workers with cruel gossip or insults.
The critic erodes your confidence by nitpicking and faultfinding, even if you've had sterling performance reviews; also trivializes or discounts your feelings.
The gatekeeper sabotages your work and your reputation by setting unreasonable deadlines, denying proper training or withholding information.
Source: The Workplace Bullying Institute
How to fight back
Because many employees aren't protected by harassment laws, their only options are to quit or convince their employers that the bully must go.
Researchers for the Project for Wellness and Work-Life at Arizona State University spent two years studying workplace bullying. They offer advice on making your case to those in charge:
1. Be rational
Describe events in a linear fashion; that is, what the bully did, how you responded and how you tried to resolve the conflict.
Tip: Make an outline, with at least three to five examples, and bring it to the meeting.
2. Curb your emotions
You can describe the emotions of being a bullying target, but avoid displaying them. Researchers found those who appeared unstable or distraught had less credibility than targets who maintained calm.
Tip: Practice telling the story in a calm voice and with confident body language.
3. Offer consistent details
Precise, vivid and abundant details are a sign of authenticity.
Tip: Document these details as the abuse occurs.
4. Be relevant, rally others
Focus on the bully's actions rather than your feelings about them, and let it be known if other employees were also targeted. This helps counter the belief that you're the one at fault.
Tip: Rally other abused workers, and provide a united front.
5. Emphasize your competence
By depicting yourself as proactive and strong, you signal that you are not a victim, but a fighter and survivor.
Tip: Explain how the bully's behavior harms workplace performance.
Source: "How to Bust the Office Bully," The Project for Wellness and Work-Life, 2007
Caring for yourself
Give it a name. There is power in calling it what it is whether bullying, harassment or emotional abuse. It helps offset the cycle of self-blame, which your employer will encourage.
Take time off or sick leave. Get emotionally stable enough to make a clearheaded decision to stay and fight or to leave for your health's sake.
Research legal options, get a physical checkup, start a job search.
Source: The Workplace Bullying Institute
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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