9 Ways to Deal with Adult Bullies and Mean Girls

Unless you had magical childhood luck or were homeschooled in the wilderness, you probably tangled with a mean girl or bully back in your day. Unfortunately, mean girls and bullies grow up and go to work, where you might just encounter them again—just without the lockers and swirlies this time around. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers nine tips to deal with workplace bullying.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
November 4, 2016
Episode #130

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While we want to believe that adulthood means the end of off-limits lunch tables, demeaning back talk, and snarky gossip, unfortunately, middle-school bullies and mean girls grow up and go to work. Bullies of the playground often grow up to become bullies of the workplace, which means too many of us find ourselves in eerily familiar scenarios to our dark days of junior high.

Unfortunately, grown-up queen bee and bullying behavior remains the same as back in the day: it systematically targets a colleague with the intention to intimidate, undermine, or degrade. The same tricks get recycled, too: gossip, sabotage, exclusion, public shaming, and many other deliberate behaviors.

Bullying takes a real and profound toll on stress levels, self-confidence, and even our grasp on reality if the bullying is prolonged and unfettered. What to do? This week, we’ll cover 11 tips on dealing with grown-up bullies in the workplace.

Tip #1: Know it’s not your fault. Sometimes, bullying can be so covert and insidious that we start to question ourselves. You might wonder: am I really the least valuable contributor to this project? Am I somehow inviting this torment by being too quiet, too outspoken, too (fill-in-the-blank)?

Rest assured, you didn’t ask for this. You never would have invited being subjected to unfounded criticism, overt exclusion, or targeted gossip that pokes holes in your self-esteem and confidence.

So even though it’s hard, remember: it’s them, not you.

Tip #2: Make immediate corrections. If the bullying isn’t entrenched yet, call out the bad behavior when it happens. For instance, if you’re not into being called “Big Tuna” or “Pama-lama-ding-dong,” say so right when it happens, in public if possible. Say calmly, “That’s not my name—please call me Jim” or “I’m not on board with that—please use my name.” Don’t try to joke about it or soften it, which could send the message that you’re nervous or vulnerable. Just state what you want. The goal is to show that there’s no fun or reward in provoking you.

Tip #3: Don’t confront the bully. However, if the bullying is entrenched, contrary to some advice you might see here on the interweb, don’t confront the bully. You read that right—don’t confront him or her. Why? Put simply, it won’t work. Bullying is a systematic campaign, not an “Oops, my bad.” A confrontation just shows the bully that the crusade to get under your skin is working.

Tip #4: Find strength in numbers. A 2013 poll asked over 600 bullied workers what they did to take care of themselves while being bullied. Unfortunately, the most popular response was to withdraw from friends and family, and the second was to go down a self-destructive path of drinking or overeating.

When we think about it, withdrawing and self-medication makes sense: feeling persecuted, especially without just cause, often makes us turn inward to try to make sense of the emotional twilight zone. Why am I being treated this way? Am I not seeing things clearly? Especially if your aggressor is otherwise well-liked or charismatic, or others don’t believe you, all this can be very isolating.

However, about 25% of respondents did report taking care of themselves in a healthy way, like exercising, meditating, or spending more time with family and friends. And this—especially surrounding yourself with family and friends—is the way to go. Indeed, a 2011 study showed that bullied adolescents can promote their mental health and protect their grades by turning to supportive friends and family.  Thankfully, the phenomenon doesn’t stop with adolescence: turn to your colleagues, family, and friends to help validate your sense of reality and remind you that you don’t deserve this cruel treatment.

Tip #5: If you take formal action, keep it about the bottom line. You may be tempted to go to your boss or the bully’s boss, but consider going higher. Why? Often the bosses know exactly what’s going on, but the bully has spent time cultivating that relationship (read: kissing up) so they’re ingratiated to authority. To bypass this, go two or three levels higher.

When you get a meeting, don’t make it about your feelings. Don’t tell long stories about what the bully did to you. It’s not fair, but keep it straightforward and low on emotion. Rehearse your story beforehand with friends, family, or your therapist until you can tell it without getting upset.

Also, instead of using the term “bully,” which can conjure boys-will-be-boys images of schoolyard scuffles, consider using the terms “abuse” or “harassment,” both of which have legal connotations and are less dismissable by higher-ups.

Most importantly, be ready to talk about the problem in terms of the bottom line. Emphasize that your bully’s behavior is costing the business in terms of money, time, performance, and morale. If other employees have left due to the bully, bring up the issue of turnover costs, expenses for headhunters, productivity lost to training and startup, and the cost of having positions vacant. Talk about productivity and how stress, distraction, and discord caused by the bully end up costing the whole team. If possible, calculate everything out in dollars.


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