Dealing with Bullies in the Workplace

When we graduated from high school, many of us hoped we were leaving behind the petty, annoying behaviors that made adolescence so unpleasant at times. So what do you do when you arrive at work to find the classic bully who tormented peers as a teen has been added to the management team at your company?

First, breathe. While this guy clearly failed to mature, most of the leaders in your organization probably grew into thoughtful adults, and they do not care to put up with bullying behaviors. Chances are, if you can help create a culture that explicitly rejects intimidation and negativity, the bully will not get the reaction he’s hoping for–leading him to either change his behavior or leave the organization.

How do you create this type of culture? According to bullying expert Dr. Scott Ross at the Colorado Department of Education, many of the principles that work effectively to manage childhood bullying can also work with adults: specifically, establishing clear social norms.

To begin establishing these norms, work with your colleagues to identify the core values they seeks to promote as a leadership team, values such as respect, inclusiveness, collaboration, creativity, and whatever else fits. Rarely do groups suggest values like self-aggrandizement, cut-throat competition, lack of trust, and divisiveness.

Then discuss how those values translate into behaviors; for example, not interrupting others during meetings, delivering criticism in a forthright and constructive way, and taking time to appreciate what’s working well (e.g., sending thank you notes to staff who go the extra mile). As the bully continues to behave in ways that are incongruent with the values established by the group, he will feel more and more out of place.

What we permit, we promote.