This article is about strategies for dealing with bullying at work. This is for you if you have to confront bosses, colleagues, customers, or rude and insulting people who are bullies, jerks, assholes, and idiots. The reality is that HR will do little to stop bullying at work. It’s up to you to develop the skills and techniques to stop this abusive behavior.
The first thing is to define what we are talking about. Bullying at work or verbal aggression attempts to exert social power and is different from physical aggression. Physical aggression is the use of force to defend or attack. Just as you can learn to respond to physical aggression with martial arts, you can learn how to fight back against bullying at work.
If you do not train to deal with a nasty person at work, you will not defend yourself if you don’t practice the techniques and skills described in this article. Learning how to deal with workplace bullies is, in large part, of course, understanding the dynamics of what’s going on. It is also taking the time to prepare yourself to deal with verbal aggression. Learning how to deal with insults, misbehaviors, and bullying at work requires practice and training.
Workplace bullying is about inflicting psychological pain. The bully’s intention may be unconscious because it may just be reactive behavior to a trigger. It might be intentional with the conscious thought of causing pain, insulting, and disrespecting you.
Whether unconscious or conscious, the hallmark of bullying at work is to make you feel pain. Verbally aggressive behaviors include a loud voice, pointing a finger right in your face, and moving into your personal space.
Bullies intend to demean you in any way possible by communicating your worthlessness through insults, disrespect, taunts, ridicule, stereotyping, and foul language.
Assessing the Power of the Workplace Bully
Social power is the ability to achieve goals. A person with higher social power can either advance or thwart the ability of a less powerful person. That is fundamentally what social power is all about. Bullies rely on social power to intimidate and insult you. Once you understand what power truly is, you can easily defeat bullying at work.
Sources of Power
Social power comes in many forms. Here is a list of some of the types of social power you will encounter at work.
Information Control: Information control is a source of power. If you have information that other people don’t have, you have power over them. If they don’t have the correct information, they can’t make the best decisions. Setting the agenda for a meeting, for example, is a form of information control.
Expertise: In addition to special skills and abilities, there’s expertise. Having experience with a task, understanding it, understanding the theories about what’s going on is a source of power.
Personal attractiveness and likeability: Personal attractiveness and likability are power sources. We call this charisma. People are attracted to charismatic individuals, want to associate with them, and feel good being a part of the “inner circle.”
Rewards and Threats: Rewards and threats are a source of power. If somebody can reward you with a bonus or a paycheck, they may have power over you. If someone can punish you by firing you, that is a form of power.
Threat occurs when you, as the person threatened, have inadequate power to deal with another’s power. In other words, when you are threatened, you can’t satisfy your needs because there is a person out there who is stopping your efforts to meet your needs.
Moral Standings: Moral standing is a source of power. Gandhi used moral standing to great effect in the 1920s and 1930s through his non-violent satyagraha protests. Eventually, he persuaded the British empire to grant independence to India.
Legal Standing: Legal standing is a source of power. If a workplace bully is part of a protected class of people, his legal standing makes workplace sanctions for verbal aggression more difficult.
Legitimacy and Recognition: Legitimacy and recognition are a source of power. When a board of directors selects a CEO, the CEO has been granted the power to lead the organization.
Formal Position: A formal position can be a source of power. Examples of positional power include being the chair of a meeting, a corporation officer, or a manager in an organizational hierarchy.
Loyal Allies: You may have loyal allies as a source of power. These are people who can come to your aid, help you, advise you, and provide you with moral and physical support.
Resource Control: You may have control over critical group possessions and resources. Imagine a decision was made at the highest part of a company, requiring a purchasing agent to acquire materials. The purchasing agent slowed down the process, causing the whole project to fail. The purchasing agent held power.
When you have control over critical group possessions and group resources, even if you’re very low in the hierarchy, you still have power. Remember that hierarchy and power are often unrelated in many ways. Don’t think that you have all the power because you’re at the top of the hierarchy. Don’t think that you have no power because you’re at the bottom.
Identify The Bully’s Power Sources
Take some time to analyze the nasty person’s power sources. Identify who has high power and who has low power. It’s not always what you think it is.
Identify what you think the bully’s sources of power really might be. You might be surprised at how little power is there. There might be a lot, but it’s often not nearly as much as the bully thinks there is.
And here’s another important consideration.
Why are you assuming you’re the low-powered party? What are your primary resources? Identify them. Think about how you can bring your power to bear when victimized by bullying at work. You will be amazed at how much power you have if you start thinking about it in these terms.
Bullying also requires you to accept the social system you’ve’ been placed in if you’re the victim. If you don’t accept the social structure offered by the bully, the bully has no power over you.
Make The Bully’s Power Unimportant To You
Here’s the secret: If you render the workplace bully’s source of power unimportant, she has no power over you. That’s how you get rid of the bully’s power and obnoxious behavior. Make it all irrelevant. When you truly understand this, you will experience liberation. It is an exhilarating moment.
One way to do this is to examine what the nasty person is offering. You look at what punishment the bully can dish out to you and decide how important that is to you.
Now, it may be that you say, “Well, I really can’t afford to get fired because I’ve needed a job.”
If you thoroughly analyze the situation, you might find that the threat of being fired is ephemeral. You may discover that you have a lot of power because you have special skills, knowledge, expertise, and experience. You are either too valuable to be fired, or your skills are desirable in the marketplace.
Most people think they’re locked into where they are, but they aren’t. They are locked into their social conditioning. If you can break that social conditioning, then you can break the stranglehold of power that people, especially verbally aggressive people, think they have on you.
Discursive Positioning: The Master Secret To Stopping Bullying At Work
Discursive positioning is an advanced and sophisticated technique for dealing with nasty people and workplace bullying. Essentially, discursive positioning describes how we compete with each other for status and power in our everyday communication.
We begin with some basic understanding of human communication and relationships.
Human beings communicate with each other through utterances. These are sounds that we have commonly agreed to have symbolic meaning. Utterances represent things and ideas. They can be abstract, or they can be concrete. Over the 250,000 years since human language arose, rules have developed to make human communication work. The rules are hidden but govern every aspect of interpersonal relationships.
Each utterance defines a relationship between the speaker and the listener. When you start paying attention to this, you will be amazed at how we unconsciously structure our relationships with each other by how we talk. This social relationship is incredibly dynamic.
We’re constantly balancing self-esteem and face-saving with the esteem of other people. In eastern cultures, this is taught to children as explicit rules of behavior. In western cultures, the rules are implicit. Children are expected to learn the rules by emulation.
Each utterance sets up relative speaking rights. We learned very early on as children not to interrupt. When we are speaking, we do not expect to be interrupted. We also expect that the listening person will not start talking until we have finished speaking. We also learned that we have to take turns in conversation. The right to speak is basically created by turn-taking — you speak first; now it’s my turn to speak.
There’s a negotiation going on in every conversation. And all kinds of things are being negotiated back and forth. We’re not even aware that it’s going on, but it’s what we’ve learned to do since the time we began talking.
The most important negotiation in conversation is about relational positioning because people seek favorable relational positions for themselves.
Favorable relationships can mean all kinds of things. It could mean that I want my wife to love me. It could mean that I want to impress somebody. It could mean that this person is trying to impress me. Maybe one of my graduate students is trying to impress me. These favorable relational positions may be apparent, but they can also be subtle. This positioning occurs all the time and is called discursive positioning.
The workplace bully attempts to establish a discursive position of moral authority. The logic is, “I’m morally superior to you. Therefore I have the right to insult, belittle, disrespect, and ridicule you because I’m a better person than you. You are worthless.”
Reject The Workplace Bully’s Narrative
Here’s the excellent news. I’m giving you permission to reject that narrative.
The moment you decline that narrative, the aggression goes away. It will no longer affect you. Once you do this, your position vis-a-vis bullying at work completely changes.
Why do people fall into this trap? First, as human beings, we’re hierarchical. From the time we were babies in our families of origin, we have lived in a hierarchy. As children, we learned very quickly that whoever has the most power wins. When we went to school, there was a hierarchy between teachers and principals. When we started in sports, we learned about coaches, team captains, different positions, and differing abilities, all of which were hierarchal.
We learned how to navigate all these hierarchies. We learned how to position ourselves within these hierarchies to fit in, be accepted, and not cause problems.
We have been conditioned to accept that people higher in the hierarchy have the right to create the narrative. That is false. Jerks intuitively know that they can take advantage of the pecking order. You do not have to accept their narrative. In fact, you should never accept a workplace bully’s narrative.
When you learn how to reject the narrative, everything changes.
The question that you have to answer is whether or not you want to accept the offered position. When a jerk belittles you at work, here’s the implicit offer:
“I’m insulting you. I’m disrespecting you. You are not worth anything. You’re worthless. You are a worthless human being who has totally angered me and is not worthy of breathing the same air that I’m breathing.”
Here’s the secret. The insult is just an offer, and you can reject it.
That’s the secret to dealing with bullying at work. You’re not going to be able to stop a verbally aggressive person from being verbally aggressive. But what you can do is change the discursive position. You will see amazing things happen around you when you learn how to do that.
How To Use Discursive Positioning to Defeat Bullying At Work
First, analyze what calls are being offered. When you think about assholes who are verbally aggressive towards you, what are they offering you? What position are they putting you into? Of course, it’s going to be a position of less entitlement, humiliation, and worthless, but be explicit about it.
Watch how your colleagues deal with discursive positioning. Do they accept the offer the bully makes to appease? Do they run away? Do they get defensive? If yes, they are accepting the bully’s discursive position. They’re not refusing it.
This is where your preparation comes in. You know where the workplace bully is coming from. What position do you want to establish for yourself?
Start role-playing, writing out, and practicing responses that reposition who you are, vis-a-vis the bully. It’s different for every person, and it’s always contextual.
You may provide other positions to the workplace bully. You may want to lead the bully into another discourse based upon the opportunities you create. You would just make statements such as, “Well, you’re outraged. And so this is what I’m going to do….” You make declarative statements. There’s nothing to be done about it as long because the options you’re offering are appropriate under the circumstance. You take the wind out of the bully’s sails.
And at the end of the day, you can always say no. You can say, “That tone of voice is inappropriate. I’m not going to listen to this anymore,” and leave. And say, “When your emotions are under control, and you’re willing to have a civil conversation with me, then I will listen to you. You are not entitled to yell at me, insult me, taunt me, or ridicule me. I don’t care who you are, and I’m leaving. And when you calm down, you can come to talk to me. I will be more than willing to work with you to solve whatever problem you might have right now.”
Think about the discursive positioning that’s going on in that statement and what you are asserting.
“I am not buying into this worthlessness stuff. You are not acting appropriately. And I am taking the moral high road here because you act immorally by being verbally aggressive. I am willing to continue our relationship when you are willing to meet me on my terms.”
It takes courage to do that, but the alternative is to be a victim.
This article has been reprinted with permission from Doug Noll’s page.