So I’m reading Bret Simmons’ post When the Bully Boss is Female . . .
There’s a slight whooshing sound in my brain and all of a sudden time sort of shifts. It’s the 1970’s and I’m in 8th grade. A new family has moved from Chicago to our tiny farming community in Michigan. They have several children, including an 8th grader named Sally, who’s reputed to be very “tough” because, you know, she’s from Chicago. For some reason, Sally takes an immediate dislike to me. At first, it’s subtle— the occasional “bump” into me, the mumbled comments whenever I’m near her. Over the course of a few weeks, it builds—whispered comments and rumors start to swirl—“Did you hear? That new girl Sally wants to fight Jenni Virsik!”
She wants to fight me? But I don’t fight. I’m a Good Girl—cheerleader, studious, and hard-working member of the Reed Middle School track team. So I ignore her increasing slights and comments. Then, Sally sends a messenger to me directly: “Did you know that Sally Smith wants to fight you?”
“I’m not fighting her” I reply. And so it continues.
At track practice a few weeks later, it comes to a head. Sally is in rare form that day, hurling ever-louder insults and threats my way. Finally, I’ve had enough. With absolute terror twisting a knot in my gut I get right in her face and shout: “Fine!!! You want to fight me? Then let’s fight!” (If the phrase “Bring It!” was in vogue back then, I probably would’ve yelled that too.)
For a moment, complete silence. Then, the sound of shuffling as the other girls re-arranged themselves to get a better look at the impending fisticuffs.
Sally takes a deep breath and pronounces, “I would. . . but I can’t” then stalks off.
You would, but you can’t? That’s it? That’s the grand finale to this drama?
I learned a very valuable lesson that day— sometimes you need to call someone’s bluff. True, it may get you pounded into the ground, but it’s the only way to flush out a bully. Bullies are all bluster and when you stand up to them, you force their insecurities into the light. By standing up to them, you also illuminate one of your most valuable assets: your self-respect.
In the workplace, I employ the “calling the bluff” technique in a more nuanced way with complainers, who are their own special brand of bully. Complainers can hold an entire department hostage with their rants. One of my favorite ways to get a complainer to shut up is to ask, “What would you like me (or our department or the Big Boss) to do with this information?” If the complainer has a genuine issue and truly wants to enact some change, she will have something to say after that question. If she’s just blowing hot air, then she’ll usually mumble something like “well, I dunno, I was just saying. . .” to which I kindly reply, “Yes, it can be helpful to vent a bit. If you ever decide to take action and need a sounding board for devising a plan, please feel free to come to me.” This sends the message that I expect some sort of problem-solving approach the next time a complaint is lodged.
Standing up to a bully isn’t easy. But it’s sometimes necessary as a way to protect your own personal boundaries or that of your team. Please share with me techniques you’ve employed for standing down that workplace bully. I’d love to hear them and bet others would too.