Workplace bullying is about power.  The bully wants to remove power from their target and retain that control for themselves, establishing a bullying dynamic between them.  A skilled bully simultaneously attacks three of their target’s forms of power: their personal power (their self-esteem, self-belief and self-confidence); their reputational influence (their credibility in the eyes of others); and their organisational status (their ability to perform their role effectively).  Being attacked in a campaign orchestrated along these lines can be overwhelming.  Targets can feel powerless to protect themselves especially if the bully is more senior than them.  The toxic combination of not knowing how to protect themselves, and having to work alongside the bully day after day, results in many targets complying with the bully’s wishes to get the encounter over with quickly, inadvertently making it easier for the bully to target them again.

There is much that a target can do at the time of an attack to mitigate the impact of the bullying and protect themselves.  Let’s examine four key principles for handling bullying safely and effectively, each of which enables the target to alter the bullying dynamic in their favour putting the bully onto the back foot. In my coaching and writing, I take the view that the optimal time to alter the bullying dynamic in the target’s favour is at the moment of attack.  Strange though it may sound, it is in these moments that a bully – someone who lives under the misapprehension that they need to have power over their target – will often desist when handled effectively by someone who knows how to defend themselves:

  • Put the issues back to the bully. Bullies want to make the target out to be ‘the problem’ and use a variety of tactics to achieve this aim. These include highlighting supposed deficiencies and failings in the target’s work and exaggerating genuine mistakes. Putting the issues back to the bully involves placing the spotlight back on them and their conduct, requiring them to give account for their bullying behaviour.  An example is the situation where a bully delivers ‘feedback’ to their target in front of the entire team.  The feedback is aggressive, undermining and bullying, and the target feels shamed.  Nonetheless, in a respectful but firm tone, the target says: ‘I value feedback because it enables me to learn. If you were to give me that feedback again, this time worded so that it is obviously designed to help me improve, how you would re-phrase it?’  Now it is the bully who is in the spotlight, feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable.
  • Find something to say or do to demonstrate to the bully that they are not 100% in charge. Bullies want to control the interaction with their target.  No matter how limited a target’s choices may be in some circumstances, there will always be something the target can say or do to demonstrate to the bully that, although they may be intimidated, they can still decide for themselves how they will behave.  These actions could be as simple as checking their emails, directing a remark at someone else or deciding to leave the room.
  • Use facts to confront untrue bullying remarks. Bullies often use tactics which involve distorting the truth, misrepresenting facts or subtly or blatantly being dishonest. These tactics are designed to impugn the character or work of the target.  But, truth always trumps lies.  In circumstances where the bully is lying or slandering the target, there will always be facts available with which to confront the untrue bullying remarks.  These truths include the target’s feelings of shock and surprise at being misrepresented.
  • Use confident body language. Bullies have an instinct for vulnerability and are on the look-out for non-verbal signals that their target is experiencing self-doubt.  Using confident body language not only impacts the bully but it also helps build the target’s self-belief.  It consists of keeping your shoulders back, holding your head high, maintaining level eye contact, sitting forward with your hands on the table or standing with your torso held upright and feet planted firmly on the ground.

Developing robust bully-proofing skills is essential for people at work who are vulnerable to being targeted. If you want to learn more, you could: