Workplace bullying can be a devastating experience. Here’s how to deal with it and also understand the dynamics behind it
Staring. Glaring. Mocking. Gossip. False accusations. Exclusion. The silent treatment. Singling out. Sabotage. Constant criticism. Coercion. Aggression. Threats.
Workplace bullying can take many forms, from the subtle to the obvious. It could mean being ignored by colleagues or yelled at by your manager. It could mean having your work subtly sabotaged or being made to feel you can’t do anything right. It could mean being gossiped about behind your back or being made fun of to your face. Or it could mean feeling that there’s just something off about how you’re being treated, even if you can’t fully put your finger on it.
Bullying can take its toll on your mental and physical and emotional health, affect your career progression and shatter your peace of mind, both at work and home. But thankfully, there are various practical, strategic and self-protective steps that you can take to overcome it. We’re going to look at what these are while also exploring the dynamics behind bullying.
1. Acknowledge that it’s happening
Sometimes, people don’t deal with workplace bullying soon enough because they are in denial about it. And no wonder — it can be a hard and scary thing to admit is happening. It can sometimes be easier to make excuses for bad behaviour from colleagues, rather than acknowledging that there might be hostile or harmful intent behind it. Because once you admit it, you have to face it.
Another reason why you might have doubts about what’s happening is because bullying doesn’t always look like shouting or aggression. In fact, a lot of toxic behaviour can be subtle or fly under the radar. As a result, you might feel that you are being ‘overly sensitive’ or that it’s ‘all in my head’.
The fact is that bullying is a form of abuse and one of the hallmarks of abuse is to doubt that it is happening. This is especially true if you experienced abusive behaviour in childhood and developed a pattern of denial about it in order to protect yourself. But if you feel that something is deeply wrong at work then trust your gut about it.
2. Realise that it’s not your fault
If you are being bullied then it is normal to question whether it’s your fault. Maybe you worry that you accidentally offended the bully at some point, perhaps by saying the ‘wrong’ thing or asserting yourself.
What you have to remember is that even if you have made missteps at times, this doesn’t make bullying remotely okay. It should be possible to work out workplace misunderstandings or conflicts without resorting to systematically targeting someone. The problem lies with the bullies, not with you. It is not your fault.
Of course, believing this is easier said than done, as bullying can have a huge impact on your self-esteem. This means that it’s all too easy to internalise the bully’s behaviour and feel that their treatment is somehow your ‘fault’ and due to any personal flaws. But it is crucial to keep reminding yourself that their behaviour doesn’t say anything negative about you — it only says negative things about them. Being bullied doesn’t make you ‘weak’, ‘worthless’ or ‘unlikeable’. So when you feel that a bully’s actions are affecting your sense of worth, try to tell yourself that ‘This is just the bully being a bully again’.
3. Understand the bullying personality
Often there is a key ringleader behind workplace bullying. And although it’s not always the case, these might be individuals with antisocial or narcissistic tendencies. This means that they could be low in empathy, take offence easily and be preoccupied with status. Unfortunately, appealing to their better nature or sympathy is unlikely to work.
These individuals can also be easily bored and might crave reactions from others, including fawning or fear. However, they could also be very charming and have many friends in the workplace. Because of this, they will also sometimes recruit others to bully you. The ‘co-bullies’ they gather aren’t necessarily malignant individuals themselves but might be quite influenceable.
Understanding the personality dynamics of bullies can help you to realise that it really is all about them and their insecurities. Because when it comes down to it, people who feel good about themselves don't bully others, pure and simple.
4. Recognise when you are being gaslighted
Bullying personalities often use a weapon called ‘gaslighting’, which just means making you question your reality, memory, experiences and perceptions. For instance, that might deny raising their voice at you and claim that you are just remembering things wrongly. Or protest that they definitely told you that the report was due at the beginning of the week, even though you know they gave a longer deadline. They do this both to throw you off balance and to protect themselves against accusations.
Bullies can also cause confusion through inconsistency. So they might be intermittently kind or supportive, causing you to feel very disoriented. But once you recognise gaslighting and mind games for what they are, you can start to become more resilient to them.
5. Start an incident diary
In any toxic situation at work, it is really important to keep a record of what is happening to you. So start an incident diary of anything problematic that happens each day, big or small. Aim to keep it as specific and detailed as possible.
Your incident diary has two purposes. Firstly, it can serve as a record of everything that has happened, should you decide to take things further with managers or HR. Secondly, it will help you to keep everything clear in your head, as the stress of bullying can often put you in a fog of confusion. But once things are written down in black and white, you might even start to notice patterns or cycles that you didn’t before.
6. Try to stay calm and non-reactive
Try to remember that bullies feed on your reactions. As we have explored, bullying ringleaders often crave responses from others, including fear, distress, confusion, anxiety and anger, as well as fawning, flattery and over-friendliness. All of these things make the toxic person feel powerful or significant. So when you respond in any of these ways, you are giving them what they want.
Added to this, if you react with anger or distress then you can give the bully leverage to ‘flip the narrative’ and accuse you of being the bully. In fact, this is a sadly common tactic with abusive people. What can happen is that a bullied person might finally reach the end of their rope and lose their temper, while the bully stays as cool as a cucumber. This can cause managers and colleagues to see the bullied person as the problem and blame them for everything. Don’t walk into this trap.
That is why it is really important not to react to bullies, where possible. And one useful approach is the ‘grey rock method’. This is a form of boundary setting with abusive personalities and involves becoming as boring to them as possible, just like a plain grey rock. It means being flat, dull and mundane during interactions, so that you don’t give them any fuel. It also means not reacting to bullying behaviour, either through anger, fear or fawning.
Of course, ‘grey rock’ doesn’t mean simply accepting or ignoring abuse or harassment. Rather, it is just a way of putting up a firm wall of non-reaction between you and the bullies.
7. Or practice assertiveness
Another approach for standing up to bullies is to communicate assertively. However, it is important to be aware of the power dynamics while doing this. For instance, is the bully your boss? If so, then tread with caution.
But where appropriate, it can be effective to calmly call them out on their behaviour. For example, 'I noticed you rolling your eyes when I said that, is there something you wanted to say about it?' This enables you to remain connected to your adult side while communicating directly and respectfully. It can also help to highlight passive-aggressive or directly aggressive behaviour on their part.
8. Find friends, allies and protectors
When you’re going through bullying, it can be very easy to become withdrawn and mistrustful. You can start to question people’s motivations and may even develop social anxiety. It may seem like it’s best just to keep your head down at work.
Yet isolating yourself can actually make a bully worse as they will see you as being more vulnerable. So try to keep interacting in a friendly way with colleagues, taking time each day to chat to them. Not only will this give you potential allies but the bullies will take note of it and might tone down their behaviour. Also, consider joining workplace clubs, task forces and charitable projects, as being seen to be involved in activities can be very effective. This is because bullies don’t tend to gravitate to people with strong support networks around them.
9. Get support at work
You don’t want to just ‘survive’ work — you want to flourish and excel. So if the situation isn’t improving then consider speaking to a manager or HR person. Remember to take your incident diary, any evidence you’ve gathered and a list of any witnesses. Then explain, as calmly as possible, what has been happening and the effect it has been having on your work and wellbeing. Aim to stick to the facts and avoid conjecture. Also make it clear what you would like to happen as an outcome of the meeting. When you finish up, ask what next steps will be taken to deal with the situation.
However, before reporting on bullying, bear in mind that it can sometimes have the effect of worsening the behaviour. You will also have to be prepared for counter-accusations from the bully, who might say that you are ‘irrational’, ‘unfriendly’, ‘incompetent’, a ‘liar’ or even a bully yourself. They might even express ‘concern’ for you.
So before contact HR, ask yourself the following questions: ‘Is my workplace properly equipped to deal with this? Are there anti-bullying policies in place?’ Sadly, according to an Inc. article on research by the Workplace Bullying Institute in the USA, 45% of percent of individuals say they've seen a bully retaliate against someone who complained about them.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t access all the support you can at work, it’s just that you should be prepared for the bully or bullies to react. That’s why it might be useful to consider alternatives like switching departments, hybrid working or leaving your job altogether. Whatever you decide, plan it sensibly and make sure that it’s to your benefit.
10. Get support from a therapist
Bullying is incredibly painful and confusing. so it can really help to have someone to talk to about what you are going through.
A therapist can help you to make sense of what is happening and also to have confidence in your perception of reality. They can also help you to develop strategies and behaviours for dealing with bullies, including remaining calm and setting boundaries. They can also help you to make decisions about your next steps, including whether to remain in your job. Plus if the bullying is causing symptoms of stress, panic or anxiety, then you can work on ways to manage this too. CAT and CBT can both be useful short-term approaches.
Also, if bullying or exclusion from others has been a pattern in your life, then a therapist can help you to make sense of this. Together, you can explore the childhood roots of this such as being picked on at school or having abusive parents. This can help you to become aware of how you might be unconsciously reliving these situations as an adult. This way, you can see where you might be vulnerable to things like gaslighting, boundary crossing or the silent treatment and start to heal that wounded part of you. Both Psychodynamic and Schema therapy are effective at exploring how upsetting childhood experiences can shape our adult reality. Finally, if bullying past or present has caused symptoms of trauma, then approaches like EMDR can help you to process these experiences in a supported space.
Workplace bullying can be a devastating experience. It is a form of abuse that can impact on your self-esteem, mental wellbeing and physical health. At its worst, it can even cause lasting traumatic effects.
But you don’t have to suffer it alone. By understanding bullying personalities, developing techniques to deal with their behaviour and seeking support both in and out of the workplace, you can find a way through. None of this is your fault but you do have the power to overcome it, step by step. And the first step is in learning to trust in yourself.
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