Ever met a bully? We’ve all been there. But here’s the thing about office jerks or workplace mean girls: They’re people (just like you!) who can’t control their emotions right now. But you can control your response to them. Right?
A 2014 survey found that at least 7 out of 10 American adults are familiar or aware of workplace bullying existing in the workplace. While some forms of bullying are actually harassment—severe enough to warrant leaving a position—there are less extreme forms of casual bullying that leave many of us in an uncomfortable middle ground, wondering what are we supposed to do.
Belittling comments, passive aggression, snappy remarks and passing the buck: Just a few smaller (yet just as damaging in the long term) ways that people can be labelled bullies. But who are bullies, really?And what does it take to pacify them?
Here are five real tips on how to handle work bullies—from easiest to gutsiest:
Try to understand why the bully is a bully
Seeing the bully for more than their harsh words and actions sounds impossible, but it’s necessary in order to figure out how to handle them. In the words of Liz Kislik, a management consultant and workplace conflict expert, “You can sometimes have totally nice people who can sometimes behave in not a very nice ways.”
She says the first step you should take when dealing with a work bully is to start on the assumption that they don’t mean to act that way. In some cases, micromanagers or control freaks “act out” in these ways, not because of your incompetence, but because they’re struggling to deal with their own anxieties and fears.
You know what they say about hurt people, hurting people? Try putting yourself in their shoes. No, it won’t change their behavior or make them nicer, but “going high” means you can help change your own reaction to them.
Check-in more often
Kislik explained that some workplaces aren’t set up to value and prioritize employer’s interpersonal relationships. But just because toxic work environments and cultures can contribute to, or even dismiss someone’s bully factor, doesn’t mean it’s unavoidable.
Don’t take an active role. Check-in with your bully or ask exactly what they expect of you. If you’re unclear about a task, ask them. Kislik advises to make it clear you both have the same goal and be direct: Say “Is that what you want to do?”
Have confidence in your abilities
Kaity A., a communications and development specialist, said that a few years ago, some of her coworkers assumed that because she was younger, they could ask her to do tasks unrelated to her role, and then treat her like she was incompetent. After putting up with their actions, she decided to stand up for herself and own the fact that she could handle the tasks at hand.
Once I made the switch from doormat to colleague, people engaged with me a lot more,” she said. Lori Bachman, CEO of The MentorShift Group agrees. “The whole thing is about—and there’s varying degrees of assertiveness—is about claiming our own power,” she said.
Stand up for yourself in the moment
Sometimes, if a bully has just gone too far, you have to address the problem head on. Bachman says to avoid using phrases like “I don’t understand, I didn’t do anything to you” or “that’s not true” because that’ll just make the bully defensive. Instead, she advises to “do the you” strategy.
“When somebody really has a pattern or berating and criticizing, we’re taught as women to take it and say “well, I feel…” Instead you say, ‘Shame on you for saying that. Does that behavior work for you?” she says. “Something that puts the person a little off balance, because then you’re reverting (it) back to them.”
Another small move? “If someone is standing over you, one simple thing to do to call back your power is to stand up. You don’t even have to use words, but you’re nonverbally saying I’m not going to stand for this,” she said.
Address the problem head-on (and keep receipts)
Dr. Christi Monk, a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership Studies, advises bullied workers to have a conversation the first time you are upset. “A lot of times people are not aware of how they’re projecting themselves onto you,” she said.
But if a bully is manipulative, they could try to make you seem like you’re blowing things out of proportion, or that you just can’t handle the task at hand. To combat this, Bachman says to come armed to the conversation with specific instances they have made you feel the way you do. Or with examples of things they have said or done.
“I think the key thing is being specific about the behaviors that have occurred ‘You have excluded me from all key meetings and then you bring me in at the end when all the work is done, I’m never invited to the social events…’” she said.
“You have to be specific, because you can never deny facts. Also, in that conversation, remove the emotion from it.”