How to Stop the Terror of Workplace Bullying

If you’re stuck working next to someone who belittles others, acts irrationally, or otherwise causes you and your co-workers to dread going to the office, you’ll likely want some tools to help manage the situation.

By Lisa Parker, President, Heads Up Coaching

Are you a bully at work, and would you know it if you were? Or maybe you just have to work with one.

If you’re stuck working next to someone who belittles others, acts irrationally, or otherwise causes you and your co-workers to dread going to the office, you’ll likely want some tools to help manage the situation.

If you’re the S.O.B. in question, perhaps you’ve gotten the “clean up your act or else” message, and you need help. Or you’re starting to get the hint that your words and actions are making others uncomfortable.

Increasingly, companies are less tolerant of poor behavior in the workplace and are taking steps to root it out.

What Is a Corporate Jerk?

We know a jerk when we see one. If we spot aggressive or thoughtless behavior on the highway or out shopping, we mutter, “What a jerk!” and drive or walk away. At the office, we can’t, unfortunately, just leave them in our rear view mirrors. The rude, impatient, or dismissive behavior ruins the workplace for everyone and thwarts attempts at harmony.

Sure, everyone has a bad day. We’re not talking about isolated incidents. To truly earn the inglorious bully moniker, one needs to have established a noticeably negative pattern that becomes the “truth” over time.

That said, not all jerks are bullies. Bullies choose a target and intentionally and repeatedly treat that person in psychologically damaging ways. Corporate jerks rarely intend to cause harm, but blinded by their drive, stubbornness, or ego, they are oblivious to the impact they’re having on others.

If you’re Person X, you may say, “So what? It’s not like I’m doing anything really terrible. And the work I do here is really important. People need to lighten up!”

Ironically, a lack of sensitivity is one of the hallmarks of jerkiness. There’s also a tendency to rationalize and make excuses such as: “We’re under tight timeframes; no one seems to understand that. You have no idea about the pressure I’m under from upstairs. If you’re too soft on people, they’ll take advantage of you and nothing will get done.” There may even be the mistaken belief that conducting oneself poorly is acceptable.

It’s not.

Studies have shown that rude, uncivil, and thoughtless behavior costs companies thousands of dollars each year in soft costs, such as the time lost in gossip, and hard costs such as legal fees when disgruntled employees seek redress.

If You’re the Jerk…

If you are in danger of being known as the “jerk” in your office, here’s what you can do:

  1. Seek feedbackfrom those who will tell you the truth. Your direct reports may act surprised that you’re asking; some may even insist everything is fine. Depending on how powerful you are (or how big of a jerk you’ve been), they may be unwilling to be honest. Look to peers, mentors, or senior colleagues who can be frank. Self-awareness is the first step to self-management.
  2. Listento feedback without any excuses, rationalization or defensiveness. If you really want to improve, you to need hear the ugly truth.
  3. Say “thank you”for the feedback, and not in a token way. Make your response commensurate with the risk and time someone took to be honest.
  4. Take action. Review feedback carefully and address each action item for a period of time until the new behavior becomes routine. Then, move on to the next action item.
  5. Be overt. Let people know from the start that you are deliberately trying to change. Say things such as, “Lately, I’ve been counting to 100 before responding to those e-mails” or “I’m working on being a little less aggressive and opinionated at meetings.”

If You Work with the Jerk…

If you work with a corporate jerk, what can you do to minimize the distraction and frustration?

  1. Take the high road. Don’t allow the jerk to suck you into the quagmire of bad behavior. That will ruin the relationship long term and may put your job in jeopardy.
  2. Set the standard for interaction. When faced with rude or thoughtless behavior, calmly tell the offender that you don’t respond well to that tone of voice (or those swear words or unreasonable demands) and you would appreciate it if the two of you could have a more professional conversation.
  3. Give the jerk constructive feedback, if asked. Be thoughtful and provide examples of how the offensive behavior is affecting your ability to perform well.
  4. Seek help. If the first three steps don’t work, bring the situation to the attention of your manager, HR representative, or another trusted authority. Provide specific examples of the offending behavior and the steps you took to address the situation.

You may not believe you have the power or the courage to take on the workplace bully. However, being prepared to do so will make you feel empowered. And your career and those of your coworkers will be the better for it.

Lisa Parker is an executive coach and the president of Heads Up Coaching in New York City. She is the author of “Managing the Moment: A Leader’s Guide to Building Executive Presence One Interaction at a Time.”

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