Bully on the Track Field

by Jennifer Miller on September 18, 2009

in Communication, Personal Effectiveness, Team Effectiveness

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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bret Simmons September 18, 2009 at 7:36 am

Jennifer, I loved this! You are so right about calling the bully’s bluff. They count on people not doing that and when we do it forces them to deal with us differently. Great advice about self-respect and protecting your personal boundaries. Thanks! Bret

Barbara Giamanco September 18, 2009 at 9:53 am

Jennifer, you are really coming into your own with your blog! Congrats.

Your story reminded me of something similar that happened to me way back in high school. The final confrontation happened in the drugstore across the street. I was scared to death but sick of being bullied…I did bring it. She didn’t.

Jennifer September 18, 2009 at 12:39 pm


Thanks for chiming in. Funny that you have your own bully story too. I had a pretty easy childhood, so this was a good learning lesson for me. It definitely helped me learn how to draw the line in the sand.

Barbara Giamanco September 18, 2009 at 1:37 pm

I grew up in a family that bullied and was abusive, so for that reason I have NEVER been into fighting or hitting another person. In that same way, the experience was new to me also.

I kept working to avoid it, be nice and pretend it wasn’t happening. Then that day in the drugstore came…she puffed out her chest and went nose to nose, but when I stepped up…she ran out. Honestly, after she and her peeps left, I started to cry out of relief. And I was so totally proud of myself for being willing to being pounded into the ground if that’s what it took to stand up for Barb.

These same people are employees in corporations everywhere making life miserable for others. Thank you so much for shining a light on a problem that many people prefer not to talk about.

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