2016 may have been somewhat of an interesting year, some alleging it to be dreadful, others heart-rending.
One notable reason is the man known as a notorious tyrant, Donald Trump.
Everywhere you look, you’ll see his name or photo, most often slewing belligerent tweets or shameful public outbursts like a rabid animal. Even my four year old son knows when to draw the line.

What I noticed was that 2016 was a year where the adult bully emerged and candidly came out of hiding. Unfortunately, Trump’s presence and newfound power set precedent for others with a bullying mentality also allowing you to get a glimpse of how society judges a person’s character and tolerance for others.

Thankfully, I live in a country where difference is celebrated and welcomed with open arms and is beautifully diverse, cordial and tolerant.

Recently, Meryl Streep called out Donald Trump in her acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award, in what was by far the most political moment of the 2017 Golden Globes, and that I’ve seen in other awards show in recent memory.

This part of her speech in particular stood out to me the most:

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

The sad news is there are Trumps everywhere, even in this beautiful country I call home:
In our workplace, like the colleague that is constantly talking over their colleagues or the manager that is using their power to undermine their staff; at our children’s school, like the teacher or sports coach that is calling your child whiney or lazy; the so-called friend that has more negative than positive comments towards you and has you constantly second-guessing their loyalty and ability to keep your secrets.

And you don’t have to be orange-faced and look combative to be known as a bully either.  Some of the nastiest ones have the most beautiful smiles and charismatic personalities.  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.

In this digital age we live in, bullying has taken on a new, unhealthy form and it’s called trolling.  Hiding behind a screen has made it so much more easier for tormentors to spew out their aimless, adverse criticism and remarks. Free speech has been butchered heavily by these bigots.  But, dealing with them can be a bit easier than having to deal with agitators that you have to face on a day-to-day.

Many years ago when I worked in Human Resources, I was having to deal with bullying of all sorts, from all levels of the organization.  Some petty, some severe, but all of them needed to be nipped in the bud sooner rather then later. And we had to tread very carefully.

The most important question here now is: Where and when do you the draw the line? 

If you’ve ever had to deal with an Adult Bully in your life, or not sure if you are dealing with one, these guidelines will help you better understand what makes an Adult Bully and how to possibly deal with them.

How do you spot an adult bully?

Bullies don’t happen overnight; they have a pattern of abusive social behaviour.
There are some occasional jerks out there (I know a few), but look at all the incidents to better distinguish whether you’re dealing with a bully or an infrequent buffoon.

When you think of a bully, your mind automatically makes you think of a kid on the schoolyard getting pushed around for their lunch money; however, in the workplace and among adults, it’s much more sophisticated.
You need to take into account the culture of the workplace, specific relationships, and how socially astute the bully is. There’s only a subset of bullies that are really obvious — people who lack a social awareness, or just have so much power that they can do whatever they want.

What are the habits adult bullies tend to have?

Back-stabbing, socially undermining someone, publicly belittling others, and blacklisting. This is one trait I’ve noticed quite heavily between different adult groups, which involves purposely leaving people out, excluding them from groups and meetings, giving them the silent treatment or the cold shoulder. Research shows that ostracism is extremely detrimental to employees because it makes them feel paranoid, unwelcome, and under extreme stress. Nobody will operate well when they feel like that.
This is extremely toxic behaviour and the end results are never favourable for anyone.

Are adult bullies typically in a position of power?

Quite often, yes.
One of the reasons a bully is generally a bully is because they have power.
When we think of power, we think of bosses and their charge over subordinates. But we also know power comes in different forms. Some people will have more power over peers, either due to their dominant personality or aggressiveness. Maybe they have social status—being in certain demographics gives people more social power.

Are most adult bullies insecure or overconfident?

For the longest while, there was a concept that, at least among children, the bullies were the insecure ones. However, there was a study done not long ago by [psychologist] Roy Baumeister that found bullying actually tended to develop in children with too high self-esteem. Of course, it’s not clear if it generalizes to adults, but I would assume it does.

Many bullies are narcissists who really do think they’re the cat’s meow. Other bullies have fragile self-esteem and target those who are threatening to them in terms of skills, expertise, or likability. In either case, both types can often be temporarily quelled with a strategic compliment and a statement that you’re not out to step on their turf. Stop short of making such ingratiation a long-term strategy, but use it judiciously to buy time while you figure out how to get away from them.

What’s the best way to deal with an adult bully?

There’s never one size fits all—especially in workplaces. There are a number of factors that will affect a person’s position at a company, so there are a list of things you can and cannot do.

Documentation: it’s safe for you and not risky for your job. I always tell everyone to keep track and document every single thing.  Write down where it was, what was done, when it happened, and collect as much evidence as you can showing a consistent trend of abuse. Documentation is absolutely critical.

Make Immediate Corrections: approach your bully in a professional and calm way. You need to address the behavior that you consider inappropriate and tell them why it can’t happen. Tell them, “I’m not going to tolerate that.” That’s critical, but it’s not always possible, even though it is the most ideal thing to do.

With that said, if the bullying is entrenched, don’t confront the bully. A confrontation just shows the bully that the crusade to get under your skin is working.

Go To a Much Higher Power: Some adults avoid doing this, especially males, because they feel this would get them pinned as a “tattle-tale” (yes, our inner child lives on in us all) or cause further damage, but when the bullying is affecting your ability to work and focus and ruin your reputation in any away, you need to see someone of higher power that can help — go 2-3 levels higher if possible, whoever that may be that can circumvent the bully.

Why not just go to your boss? Well, often the bosses know exactly what’s going on, but the bully has spent time cultivating that relationship (read: brown-nosing) so they’re ingratiated to authority. This is especially true when they’ve worked together for many years and have built personal bonds.  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 and family 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.

Again, that’s easier said than done. If it were that easy to fix, it wouldn’t happen at all, because we know there are risks to victims who report bullying, especially when it may risk your loss of the job. The level of risk they face is going to vary, and work politics plays a big role.  Seek professional assistance from Human Resources when you can as they play the middle man and work to remedy these types of political work issues as promptly as they can to benefit all.

Find Strength In Numbers: Take care of yourself by meditating, exercising and spending more time with family and friends. Indeed, some studies have shown 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.

Get Out Of There: If you are not able to successfully change the circumstance, then you have to limit your exposure to the bully. That may mean limiting connections to that person, or, as much as it isn’t right, completely removing yourself from that environment. That’s not right or ideal, but at some point, someone needs to weigh whether it is worth harm to their mental or physical health.  

It can be tempting to stay in the job because of pride or a sense of justice, but like in cases of domestic abuse, the safest and healthiest thing to do is leave. If your organization is big enough, you may be able to transfer within, but especially if your bully or mean girl is the head honcho, discreetly look for another job and fly far, far away.

Stand Up For Others: Once you’re free of your bully, use your experience to help others in the same predicament. The phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility, where people are less likely to take action when others are present, creates an even more toxic environment out of a bullying scenario.

Therefore, even saying something as simple as, “Quit messing with him,” or “No one thinks that’s funny,” can send a message to the bully that their shenanigans are not tolerated. A bully’s greatest asset is the collusion of others because it contributes to isolating their target. Breaking ranks with the silent bystanders is one of the best things you can do. So do the right thing. You’ll feel good about yourself and maybe gain a grateful friend in the process.

Take care of yourself and know your worth, the rest will take care of itself.

8 comments on “Adult Bullies & How to Deal With Them”

  1. Well said! Working with school children I often notice the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree sadly, And if it is not corrected while they are young then it just carries right over into adulthood.

  2. Those are great strategies for dealing with bullies. Adult Bullying is such a serious problem, especially in workplaces.

  3. I’ve had to deal with bullies as a kid and it wasn’t fun but, I did learn that it was better to stand up to them than run away. I also stood up for my BFF when she was being bullied. I can’t stand by and watch someone being bullied. I’ve been at the park with my little boys and have seen bullying happening and have said something. I can’t be quiet when it comes to bullying. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine.

    • Thank you for sharing and good of for you standing up. I cannot stand on the sidelines whenever I see bullying happen in front of me – whether in real life or online. If nobody will say something, who will?

  4. this is an excellent write up carol with some really great advice and strategies. Bravo. I do not however agree that “One of the reasons a bully is generally a bully is because they have power”. I do not believe that a person who is not a bully will suddenly become one just because they gain some power. Instead I think that bullies are attracted to power so they strive to be in positions of power. This is why there are more of them who have power. There are plenty of examples of people who have power but are not bullies. Yes I too have seen plenty of bullies in the workplace at many levels within an organization from the officious secretary to the hell on wheels VP who terrorizes the staff. Many companies have cultures where they turn a blind eye to it.

    • Thanks, Shelley. Yes, I agree with that. Certainly many that possess that bullying mentality are not always in powerful positions; however, yes, they do strive to be powerful. I feel bullies feel powerless when they aren’t doing or saying something that will make them feel more inferior.
      In my experience, I’ve noticed that the bullies I’ve come in contact with and/or have had to deal with directly all have similar traits. One of the most prominent being the need to be seen, heard and respected. Which, ironically, is the adverse way to go about it. I’ve also met and worked with absolutely honourable, hardworking leaders that do not have a bullying bone in their body. Thanks so much for reading!

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