The Plague of Office Bullies | Lessons in Leverage

“Where are they now?” Those school yard bullies who’d torment you at recess and those “mean girls” who’d text snarky comments about you.

Chances are they’re someone’s boss or coworker, maybe even yours.

Bullying has become epidemic. 

We’ve all heard about the often terrible consequences of bullying among tweens and teens. Now there’s the suicide of a grown man, already suffering from chronic depression, allegedly bullied to his limit by his boss.

There are endless motivators for bullies and their bullying tactics. The psychology of bullies is for the professionals, but their overarching motivation is to make themselves feel they’re “more” and you feel “less.”

Their weaponry is generally words, particularly criticism of our:

  • Appearance or way of speaking
  • Friends and associates—people we hang around with
  • The way we go about our work and the outcome

They attack who we are and undermine our self-esteem, self-confidence, and credibility.

A bully boss or just a demanding one? 

Some bosses expect a lot from us. They are hard drivers with strict standards of conduct and productivity. They expect us to deliver quality work every time and a lot of it. Does that make them bullies?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is my boss clear and consistent about what I’m expected to do?
  • When I make a mistake, does s/he explain how to correct it?
  • Does feedback focus on the work and not on me personally?
  • Do I get both positive and corrective feedback?

“Yes” answers speak to a demanding boss, not a bully. Phew!

But if you answered “no” and have a boss who persists on “hurting” you with his/her words and/or treatment, you likely have a bully on your hands.

Neutralizing the bully at work 

Workplace bullies will try to make you wrong, inferior, powerless, isolated, ostracized, and impotent. They make a habit of undermining your influence, your voice, your associations, and your value.

Neutralizing a bully takes a lot of work on your part. Too often we let the bullying go on too long before we start to pull together an offsetting strategy.

Moving on is always an option. For some people, the emotional effort it takes to counteract a bully just isn’t worth it.

In her Harvard Business Review article, How to Confront an Office Bully,  Cheryl Dolan writes, “Bullying can’t survive in workplaces that won’t support it. Intervention by management is a powerful weapon to reducing bullying in the workplace. Most targets can’t win alone — most bullies will never stop. It’s a complex issue, and intervention often carries consequences. But there are situations where it’s worth the risk, personally and professionally.”

A proactive, intervening management is the ideal but not always the case. As employees, we need leverage. Bullies are less likely to push people around who have more powerful friends.

That’s why it’s important to build a strong “power base” at work. This isn’t about where you are on the organization chart. It’s about how you engage others who will have your back. 

Affiliating with people at every level of the company is a good start. When a critical mass of well-regarded people know you, bullies are less likely to target you. Why? Because they have no idea whether or not you can turn the tables on them.

How this works! 

Let’s say you are an entry level employee with less than a year of service. Here’s how you can start to build leverage:

  • Acknowledge publicly the work of administrative and facilities staff
  • Get to know lots of people in other departments
  • Acknowledge by a short e-mail the accomplishments or promotions of managers and/or executives
  • Build a solid relationship with your boss (hopefully not the bully)

These people become your “following,” able to counter bullies through their own channels when you need them to. Business fitness requires a strong following and the leverage that comes with it. Be strategic. Be careful!

Have you ever been or seen people bullied at work? Will you share your insights about how to contend with it? I’d be grateful!




Coworkers Hard to Know? Scratch Their Surface | Relationship Building Discoveries

Sometimes we just can’t get a line on the people we work with. They seem so composed or unpredictable, uptight or laid back, pessimistic or optimistic. What is it with them, anyway?

When we can’t quite figure out our coworkers (or even our bosses), we feel uncertain about how to go about building a relationship with them. So, we put our detective face on:

  • Watching and listening for clues about what makes them tick
  • Asking our colleagues to share their perceptions
  • Speculating and scenario building based on our observations
  • Analyzing and revising our views along the way 

This is all so typical and often the road to nowhere.

What you see is rarely what you get!  

Work is different things to different people. For some it’s a:

  • Refuge from domestic strife
  • Playing field for one’s competitive drive
  • Source of revenue to fund a way of life
  • Place to feel important and valued
  • Community where there’s a sense of belonging 

Most people don’t showcase their whole selves at work. We come to work with the personal brand that we are willing to let others see, hoping to add a strong professional brand to it.

When we start to wonder why relationship building is so difficult, we should check our own cover to see what we’re showing or hiding. What do people know, suspect, or find curious about us?

The coworkers we watch are also watching us.

Be a teammate, not a detective. 

Great relationships evolve from common bonds and trust. Give a little—get a little and then give a little more. The secret sauce here is in the bonds. What is it that connects you to the people you work with?

  • Shared commitment to the work
  • Pride in your work ethic and standards
  • Willingness to acknowledge your weaknesses and to help each other
  • A sense of humor and compatible aspirations 

Relationships are built on give and take. Sometimes you have to give longer than you’d hoped. Relationships take time. We have to want them. Why? Because they are good for us and our organizations.

But relationships also challenge us, particularly our patience, sensibilities, and our own self-centeredness. They’re often humbling, teaching us a great deal about the burdens that our coworkers bring to work or return to afterward.

Here are two interesting people I’d like you to meet:

Mark supervised 20 customer service reps in a large call center. He was well liked by his employees although considered a bit distracted and even indifferent. Mark was also an avid collector of war memorabilia, everything from Civil War uniforms to canons. He shared the joy of his “treasure hunting” with a wife whom he adored—a wife whose degenerative eye disease led her each day to a fate of total blindness.

Maria was a go-getter at a large company, so eager to get work done to please her boss that she ran over everyone in her path. As an immigrant from Central America, she felt she had to out-perform everyone else to have a chance at advancement. Maria came from a very poor family and had father who was tough on her. She came to the U.S. as a teenager determined to “make it.” Every day was a challenge for her, and even after she’d attained unquestioned success, she could not stop pushing, always fearing possible failure.

Scratch the surface. Find a gem. 

We all have a story. It’s what makes us who we are. Our stories are the color commentary of our lives. The life experiences we bring to our jobs enrich our work and our relationships. Not every story belongs in the workplace, but certain ones help us to connect with others while bringing the most out in us.

Our business fitness grows from the relationships we build, the connections we nurture, and the following that we attract. We’re all more than our skill sets!

How do you go about building relationships at work with people you aren’t comfortable with? Any pitfalls we should know about? Thanks.


Want Control? Manage the Message. | Words As Power Tools

“I’m at a loss for words.” Such a helpless moment! We’ve all been there, I suspect. Can you remember a time when someone unexpectedly pushed your hot button and you became tongue-tied? I sure can. And that made it worse!

What you say matters. 

Too many people in the workplace simply don’t know what to say when faced with an issue, problem, or challenge.  So they either say nothing or the wrong thing.

Big messes in business are generally the product of the wrong words delivered at the wrong time in the wrong way. The result often is:  

  • Customers furious with the phone rep’s comments
  • Employees complaining to HR about their performance review
  • Harassment suits or diversity complaints
  • Poor morale
  • Employee turnover 

It’s not industry jargon that’s the issue here. It’s insensitive or antagonistic language, used by supervisors (and employees), that hits a nerve.

Companies need people who have a command of the language, so that they can:

  • Describe performance behaviors objectively
  • Open up collaborative discussions
  • Address the needs of upset customers
  • Resolve disputes
  • Provide compelling reasons for change 

The right words clear up misunderstandings, change behavior, build teamwork, and influence progress. The wrong words create dissention, alienate employees, paralyze growth, and build distrust.

Words give you control. 

Successful careers are a function of your ability to use words effectively. You need words to:

  • Describe the root cause of a problem
  • Provide justification for a raise, promotion, or special assignment
  • Promote the value of the work you achieved
  • Build positive relationships
  • Make effective presentations
  • Sell your innovative ideas 

Never underestimate the power of words and the asset value they have to your career.

A case in point 

I was an English major working in an engineering company. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the language of this business, a Fortune 500 energy corporation, was technical. Papers and memos were loaded with analyses and endless minutia, regardless of the needs of the reader.

Part of my job was to convert the language of complex energy issues into information easily understood by customers. My challenge was to “translate” engineering “speak” into laymen’s terms without compromising the accuracy of the information.

It didn’t take too long until I realized how much influence this role gave me. It became my brand and stayed with me with every career move.

I realized that word power creates the opportunity to influence ideas, thinking and action. Here’s how you can enjoy this advantage:

  • Offer to take the notes at strategy meetings where you summarize the key points in complex discussions. The words you use can influence direction.
  • Prepare position papers on subject matter important to your work group
  • Write internal marketing and branding language for your team
  • Volunteer to draft “discussion documents” (often called straw men) for key meetings
  • Draft a performance self-appraisal at evaluation time 

Go ahead. Write the words. No one else wants to. 

That’s the truth. Writing—struggling to find the correct words and preparing documents—is the last thing most of your colleagues want to do. It’s drudgery to them, mostly because “they don’t have the words.” Not only will you have an outlet for your perspective, you will “save the day” but taking that burden off someone else.

Look, words are important. It’s how we keep the craziness of the world in perspective. We need to put labels on things so we can manage them. If you can do that at work, you’ve got a huge edge. Business fitness includes attracting a following. I guarantee you that the right words are your best hook!

Do you have a “loss for words” moment to share? Or a time when words saved the day? The word’s the thing!