Mindful tips on dealing with bullying at work.

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

As a child I grew up witnessing an older friend of mine being bullied. She had the biggest heart and lowest self esteem.  Her peers clearly saw this as a weakness, for them it was an empowering opportunity to make her suffer.  Slowly watching the light of her spirit become dimmer and dimmer, was excruciatingly painful. I felt helpless for her, the bullies were much older than me and quite frankly I found them too terrifying to have the courage to confront them on her behalf.  At the time I had no idea of the valuable lesson that I was being taught.

Many years later when I was in my early twenties and working as a civil servant, I was transferred to a new office. I worked within a small group of about 5 or 6 people, and the job roll we had meant we really needed to work as a close-knit team.  Initially everyone seemed really lovely and friendly, but it wasn’t too long before it became apparent that one of the girls on the team was actually being bullied by two female colleagues, both were in their late twenties.

Every day I would come into work and the poor girl who was being bullied (lets call her Sarah) would be tucked in a corner somewhere, desperately looking as if she didn’t want to be asked to do anything in case she ‘got it wrong’.  Every opportunity her two bully’s got to undermine her, belittle her, or cause her embarrassment, they would. It was as if they relished in the fact that they could make her feel worthless and gained empowerment from being able to dominate her.  It was horrifying.  I had no idea why they were doing what they were doing, but it was obvious they were making Sarah’s life miserable and she didn’t have the confidence to deal with the situation on her own.

I had only been on the team a week or so, so effectively I was the new girl.  My own selfish side was apprehensive about causing problems for myself, but at the same time I just couldn’t stand it any longer, watching Sarah suffer was just too painful.  One day I went into work, only to find her in the toilets sobbing into a hankie.  Initially she was mortified that I had found her crying, but after a few words of encouragement she slowly opened up to me. Apparently she had been on the team a few short months, and initially everything was fine. Whilst she was still at the stage of having to ask for help, looking up to her bully’s for guidance, they were helpful and encouraging towards her.  But after a few weeks, she started to gain a bit of confidence in her new role, and slowly began to gain acknowledgement for some of her work from her manager and other colleagues.  She said it was at this point her bully’s attitudes suddenly changed.

Now she felt as if she couldn’t do anything right, they criticised her work constantly, picked at every fault and called her incompetent and lazy.   She said the more she tried to please them, the more they attacked her on every level. What made it worse for her, was whenever someone else came into the office outside of the team, including the manager, they would suddenly become falsely nice to her, acting as if they were her best friend.  Her manager was either oblivious to the situation, or was choosing to completely ignore it.  Not only were they bully’s, but they were also very sly.

It was very simple, Sarah’s bully’s actually saw her as a threat. They were more than happy when Sarah was new and feeling vulnerable, whilst she was in that position, they felt that they could dominate her.  They themselves felt as if they were in a place of control, and whilst they were in that position of control, they actually felt secure within themselves.

From that very day onwards, Sarah and I would meet in the office early, although I was new to the team I had more experience than everyone else put together, so I felt the least I could do was to take her under my wing and give her the support and encouragement she deserved.  We would meet an hour or so before everyone else arrived each morning, and during this time I would teach Sarah how to complete certain tasks and answer any questions she had. The next time something derogatory was said to Sarah, I challenged it.

Initially I wasn’t very popular.  Who was I to come in and start challenging someone else’s behavior?  But I didn’t care, and I remember thinking at the time, if I was ever made a manager within my working career, I would strive to be the kind of manager that my staff would have confidence in.  One that could challenge the type of behavior Sarah had been subject to, and deal with the problem effectively. I didn’t want to be someone who just brushed problems under the carpet in the hope they would go away.  Less than 10 months later that opportunity arose, I was promoted and in fact managed the very same team that Sarah and I had been on.  I spent the next eight years building a reputation of being a manager that wasn’t afraid to deal with challenging staff, hopefully proving I had the ability to deal with volatile situations within the workplace calmly and effectively. I’m not a perfect manager by any means, and of course I have made mistakes along the way,  but I still to this day try to learn from those mistakes and continue to acknowledge that I am always constantly learning.

Dealing with bullies in the workplace can be challenging and may seem incredibly daunting if you’ve had no previous experience of this type of thing before.  But if you take the mindful approach of tackling the situation within the bigger picture, it can have a very rewarding out come and help you grow as a manager or person.

What motivates a bully?     Always be mindful of why someone is behaving like a bully in the first place.  People who feel the need to dominate, control, or constantly point out the faults of others is usually someone who is actually very insecure and unhappy within themselves.  If they gain satisfaction out of being unkind and constantly unproductively critical towards a colleague, nine times out of ten they are usually feeling insecure with their own abilities or within their life as a whole. Bully’s are often dissatisfied with certain aspects of their own life, maybe it isn’t going how they planned, or they feel as if they have no direction.  Once you understand that behind the aggressive, short-tempered or unkind person you see bullying someone else, is actually someone who is behaving that way because they are feeling vulnerable, scared or lonely themselves, it enables you to tackle the situation from a different perspective.

Acknowledging a bully and their tactics   Bully’s rarely pick on someone they see as confident, self-assured or more experienced.  They will tend to target someone they see as weak, vulnerable, keen to please, or the kind of person that won’t challenge their behavior. Bully’s love to dominate and make people feel embarrassed and incompetent.  In my experience the type of people who bully tend to be short-tempered, impatient, have a great difficulty in acknowledging their own faults or weaknesses, and will in fact often have a very high opinion of themselves.   They can be very unwilling to pass on their skills to others (usually through fear of that person actually becoming more competent than them within the working environment).  They will be seen to gain pleasure out of pointing out others faults and using this as an excuse for things not going how they want within their working environment, rather than taking the approach of helping someone overcome their weaknesses.   Very often they are impatient too, unwilling to spend time encouraging others to learn and grown, expecting people to immediately come on board with all the skills and knowledge they possess themselves.

Firm approach with an open heart   I have always found that if you show kindness, compassion and understanding, supported with a very firm but fair approach, usually bullying within the workplace can be tackled reasonably quickly and effectively. There is no point going in with all guns blazing, either as a manager or as a victim of a bully. Remaining calm and level-headed about the situation helps everyone involved.  However, don’t beat around the bush either.

  • As a manager you should challenge inappropriate behavior head on, in a calm, clear but firm manner.   Bully’s need to understand when their behavior isn’t acceptable and why.
  • Take time to listen to your staff. Make sure the whole team are clear on what your policies are regarding bullying too.  My staff know I won’t tolerate it on any level, and if they want to work in my company then they must continue to express kindness, respect and show support to everyone that works alongside them.
  • Be mindful of the reasoning behind their behavior, their own insecurities and frustrations. I’m not saying you have to turn into a counselor, but if they are insecure due to something relating to their work say, then you may be in a position to help them on that level.
  • Let them know they are supported within their role, but make it clear you expect them to show continued support to others too.
  • I have often challenged bully’s by asking them how they feel about the direct consequence of their actions. For example “Do you know every time you say that to Sally, she has told me it makes her feel really embarrassed, incompetent and she is too scared to complete her task in fear of what you will say to her. How does that make you feel?” . Hopefully confronting their behavior on an emotionally level will make them more aware of what they are doing, and will give them food for thought.
  • Don’t let bully’s try to justify their bullying. Many times I have heard bully’s say something like “well if she did her job properly I wouldn’t have to keep asking her to do it!”.  There is never an excuse for someone trying to belittle another member of staff, end of.
  • Make it very clear of what will happen if they continue to ignore your warnings. I have no hesitation of telling staff about our disciplinary procedure. When they understand you are taking the matter very seriously, hopefully they will too.
  • Bully’s will often portray themselves as being the best at what they do, but will be very unwilling to pass on their skills, or will attempt to keep the lime light to themselves.  I once worked in a salon where the owner had built a really good reputation for herself, but although she had exceptionally talented staff she restricted any of us from connecting ourselves to the salon outside of work. Effectively, she was happy for us to say how good we were when actually working in her salon, but we weren’t allowed to express any connection to her outside of that, her reasoning being that she had worked really hard to build up her reputation and business, clearly painting the picture to us, that she wasn’t willing to ‘share’ that success. She would often point out our faults too, ensuring we understood she was top of her game and far more experienced than any of us.    Although none of us were employed by her, we merely rented rooms, It was very clear to me that she was in fact incredibly insecure and was frightened that we may become equally as good as her in the business, and then we may potentially ‘steal her customers’.  If she had spent more time, encouraging, supporting and nurturing her team, helping them develop within their ‘own right’ instead of placing various restrictions on us, her business would have blossomed into something very special.  Instead the turnover of her therapists was frequent and she ultimately built the reputation of being a poor manager and very insecure business woman.

If you’re a victim of bullying, you may feel the situation is completely out of your control, but there are certain measures you can take to try to defuse the situation and how the person is making you feel.

  • You may not feel confident enough to challenge someone head on, if you do that’s fine, just remember to be calm and collected. Don’t rise to the bait, even if you are challenged yourself.
  • If you feel confrontation isn’t appropriate, then try not to engage with the bully, silence is often far more powerful than words. When a bully isn’t getting the reaction they want they may get bored.
  • Confined in a co-worker you can trust. Confidence can often grown when you have someone else to sound off to and bully’s rarely target people in numbers.
  • Bully’s will often make threats, in an attempt to try to dominate a situation. Try not to panic if this happens, remember it’s usually their own insecurities fueling their desire to try to gain control of a situation.  For them attack is the best form of defense.
  • Be aware that you are a much wiser and kinder person for not treating anyone the way the bully treats you. It may not be much comfort when someone is constantly being unkind to you, but feel proud of the fact that you know better.
  • Get yourself a coach! Coaches are fantastic at helping you see your strengths and motivating you in areas of your life that you may lack confidence. They can give you an outsiders perspective on things, and can often help you understand and cope with challenging situations in life.
  • Don’t be afraid to let your manager know what is happening and how you feel. Bully’s tend to have recurring patterns of behavior and you may not be the only one in the office that has been subject to his/her actions.
  • Remember, you are in control of your life. If a bully makes you feel worthless and unhappy, you are actually allowing them to have that affect on your feelings.  Easier said then done at times I know, but it’s always helpful to remind yourself you feel the way you do because you are allowing yourself to do so.

Ultimately I believe if you are happy, secure, open-hearted person you will always find the time and effort to offer your support and encouragement to colleagues.  Even if someone is frustrating you because they aren’t working to a standard you expect, or they are taking much longer to do something than you would hope, offering a helping hand or words of encouragement is far more productive and helpful than complaining.  In years to come I hope I can look back at the staff I have now and see them at the top of their game in what ever they go on to do, all successful and truly happy.  It would bring me much pleasure to know that somewhere along the line I was able to provide them with the tools, training and support to be a small part of helping them get there, that’s when I will know I have done my job well.

The fool thinks he has won a battle when he bullies with harsh speech,
But knowing how to be forbearing- that makes one victorious.
The worse of the two is he who, when abused, retaliates.
One who does not retaliate wins a battle hard to win.

Knowing that the other person is angry, one who remains mindful and calm
Acts for his own best interest and for the other’s interest, too.
He is a healer of both himself and the other person also.
He is thought a fool only by those who do not understand the Dhamma.

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