Like an arrogant matador, some bullies are simply there for the chance to wear tight pants and receive admiration from the crowd.
The question is: are you willing to be a passive spectator while your workplace tyrant puts on a bloody spectacle and and gets the reaction he or she craves?
In this post you'll get the best "on the spot" techniques to help you gather your composure when you are the target of unwanted attention from a bully and react in a way that silences the crowd.
You'll also discover word-for-word responses you can use that will take the "easy to rattle" label off your back.
First let's look at how our emotions can sometimes get the best of us:
Sometimes we try to do too much... in the moment we are targeted by a bully.
Many of us fail to realize, until it's too late, that the moment we are blind-sided by an inappropriate comment or off-colour joke by a co-worker -- especially when it happens in front of peers -- is the worst time to lash back.
A red-faced flippant response can come back to haunt us, especially if we have fallen for the bully's "bait" and react in an aggressive way that allows him to accuse us of harassment.
When we display that we are flustered, angry or shocked, we fail to understand the strategic reason a bully targeted us in the first place.
Here's what I mean by "strategic reason":
The bully's aim was to elicit an emotional reaction from us.
The bully's objective was to paint us as being incompetent and unstable.
The bully is trying to determine how "soft" of a target you are to test if he/she can pull off an even more humiliating defeat later on.
Your emotional reaction is "oxygen" for the fire the bully is trying to start in your life...
We often make the mistake of expecting "red zone" bullies to be rational when in fact their drives are inherently destructive.
While your focus may be on moving a project towards a mutually beneficial conclusion, the bully is often hell-bent on making sure that he or she wins. At any cost.
In this zero-sum game, the narcissistic co-worker calculates that if you win, he loses. Therefore you must lose.
It's not whether the presentation is a success or the client is happy, it's whether he gets to bask under the warmth of the spotlight. You are nothing more than competition for the attention and approval he craves.
Like that arrogant matador, he swings his red cape at you, hoping you'll blow steam out of your nose and charge your way across the office towards him, horns ready gore him into submission.
He'll be there waiting for you, only to dodge you at the last minute as you crash your way through the window, Mad Men style, tumbling to the ultimate humiliation.
So what is the best way to head off this type of showdown?
The best "in the moment" reactions come after careful reflection & extensive rehearsal BEFORE the hypnotic dance begins.
This requires us to use some advanced "bully detection" skills so you can identify threats in advance.
Here are three types of co-workers to look out for that may threaten your professional standing:
Bossy Betty loves to be in charge, to wildly swing her hips & arms in a flailing attempt to direct the orchestra (despite having few "musical" talents to speak of).
She's the first to assign blame and the first to claim credit for whatever accidental success results from her confused direction.
In the event you are a target of Bossy Betty's reprimands, here's what you can say:
Apologize with a twist: Deliberately misinterpret the bully's motives
This gets a great reaction because you are providing an admission of guilt or fault -- not for your performance -- but rather for misunderstanding that the bully had good intentions.
Instead of accusing the bully of being controlling, you let them know your first impressions of them as an honest broker were wrong.
"I'm sorry, I mistakenly thought you were an implementer & focused on contributing to the team's success. Let's do it your way and if it doesn't work out, I'm sure you'll have no problems being fully accountable."
When you are highly competent and well regarded among your peers (as most targets initially are) and you admit fault, you show a human side.
Instead of pounding your chest and trying to mirror the bossy bully's petulance, you give the bully what she wanted: complete control & complete responsibility for the outcome.
The most common reaction will be silence, followed by a retreat. Many bullies, despite their bluster, are desperate for approval, and do not want to be left holding the ball in the playground with no one to play with.
If the bully decides to plow on, you've positioned yourself as a leader by indirectly expressing your displeasure with her approach -- which may in turn free others to resist.
When this happens the bully will lose face and have no one to blame but herself.
Gary is flashy, brash and charming. He loves to trumpet his successes, show off his "trophies" and "name drop". Spend enough time around him however, and the facade wears thin quickly.
The mask of arrogance he wears hides a deep feeling of insecurity. If he were to admit others helped him achieve his accolades or ask for help, it would be a sign of weakness.
The Gary's of the work world are often a thousand miles wide and about an inch deep, so instead of trying to outshine him, throw him some questions that are out of his depth and see if he can swim. The key is to ask for specificity.
"We all agree we'd like to get a great result here & that it could be in everyone's best interest if we are selective about who takes on which role.
So can you please tell us the last time you did (this complex task), the specific result you got, who worked with you and why you're the right person for this job?"
This is a straight up question, based on fair criteria. Once he answers -- which will typically be very light on details, you can try this follow up question:
"So what you're saying is if we follow the same steps you did, we should expect (specific desirable end result)?
I think we're all looking forward to hearing more about your great work and how it will take us to (our goal) faster. Can you elaborate?"
This will raise everyone's expectations about what the person in that role needs to accomplish and put moderate pressure on Gary to either step up or step aside so someone more competent can take on the task.
Suzi is the boss's favorite. The apple in his eye, the "can do no wrong" employee who is continually put in situations that are clearly over her head. Watch out when she gets assigned by a bully to foul-up your team project.
While not a bully per se, the problem with a Suzy is that her lack of competence will rub off on you -- especially if she or her superiors starve you of the resources, decision-making authority and people you need to do the job well.
The other danger is that if Suzi tries to do it on her own, your and your other co-workers reputations can be smeared by association.
In these situations, it's best to either play on Suzi's fears that she may be risking disapproval from the boss if she does a shoddy job OR position yourself as someone who can help her look good.
A combination of two might work best.
It's vital that you hide your ambitions here by providing proof that "your way" works better and to paint a vivid picture of the end result she wants to accomplish.
The critical element to leave out for the moment is 'how' it is to be accomplished. That's what she will look for you to do.
Your other co-workers may not respond to Suzi leading the charge, but they may "buy in" if they know you are driving the project behind the scenes.
Be sure that you establish the "wink, wink" that you are not choosing Suzi's side, but rather massaging the situation so everyone can arrive at the end result they want.
Can you see how this approach bucks the pattern of the other two co-workers?
Bossy or brash co-workers need to be put in their place. Sycophants, however, need to be coddled & made to feel doing it your way was "their idea in the first place".
Here's Your Action Steps:
Figure out what type of co-worker you are dealing with & then find out what the other people in your group want to achieve- so that no matter how "bad" the bully is, they will follow your lead.
Why? Because you are demonstrating that you have their best interests in mind. No amount of persuading, pleading or coddling will get the "good" co-workers on your side if you don't have their best interests in heart.
Now it's your turn. What other ways have co-workers tried to undermine you at work & how have you "put them in their place" without becoming a bully yourself? Comment below.