Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Bullies and how people enable them

I don't like bullies. I don't like adults who threaten and yell and generally throw their toys to try and get their own way, who belittle others to wield power over them, particularly when it is their default setting in life to operate that way. I guess that's one of the reasons Paul Henry's behaviour bothers me so.

The big problem with bullies is always how to deal with them effectively. When I'm talking to someone else about how to deal with a bully the first step I always suggest is to get together with anyone else who is being bullied, or who may not support the bully. Bullying works on the basis of isolating victims from each other, encouraging people to keep their heads down so that they will avoid the unwelcome attentions of the bullies. If you can overcome the isolation you are halfway to winning. At least you can bitch about the bully with someone else, and acknowledge between you that it is bullying, and take a bit of the power back.

Personally I'm a big fan of naming stuff what it is. I remember pointing out to someone once that they were trying (somewhat ineffectually) to bully me. She was outraged and proceeded to prove that she was not bullying by standing between me and the door, in a small space, hectoring me with her finger, leaning over me and yelling. I believe there may have been spittle. Major not-bullying FAIL.

Right now I have a problem with a bully, and it's got me musing on the theme.

I should start by saying this is not a work-related issue. It's not my workplace and it's not anyone else's either.

The Bully has a long long history of this behaviour. She goes straight to the Yelling Place, and I have literally had to hold the phone away from my ear more than once. She once wrote another target of her bullying a twenty page letter outlining all the times she had been sinned against by this person. Who has time to write a twenty page letter about anything, unless they're being paid to write it, or maybe it's about love. Or like your first novel or something. Anyway, the point is that twenty pages of hate is pretty hard to sustain, for most people.

The Bully in this case has basically burnt off almost everyone else. There's one person staunchly in her corner, two people pretending this is all Someone Else's Problem,* and then me and one other who reckon the bullying sucks. So we have one Bully, one Bully-supporter, two Bully-enablers (by refusing to take any responsibility and looking away), and two Bully opposers. For those yet to be rescued by National's Crusade For (Literacy &) Numeracy, that's four versus two. Not looking good for the Bullying Must Stop camp.

And there is one other person in this equation too, who is in a leadership role, and it's their special brand of enabling that is really getting to me.

To my way of thinking leaders, whatever their actual title, have an obligation to ensure the good running of whatever group they lead. Implicit in that should be to deal with any bullying amongst the group. But too often leaders too get bullied, and to make it worse they don't see that's what's going on, because then they'd have to do something. So they pretend, to themselves and everyone else, that they are just being neutral and rising above a spat between those they lead.

This approach solves precisely Nothing.

It undeniably hard for leaders to deal with bullying, especially when they too are suffering from the Bully's activities. It's even harder when a leader is in denial, and just avoiding confronting the Bully about anything, even when the Bully does stuff that really is beyond acceptable. Contact the Bully makes with the leader only serves to reinforce the Bully's view that they are in the right, because the leader says soothing things to avoid being bullied themselves. Stuff like "of course I can see that you are both coming to this with Good Intentions and think you are doing the right thing" and "it's my role to remain neutral and not get involved in disagreement between you people down there."

So what do you do about a leader who abdicates their responsibility in this crucial area? Who is okay with giving power up to the Bully rather than confront behaviour that is unacceptable and should be dealt with?

Today I'm at a loss.

* Props to the irreplaceable Douglas Noel Adams.


Jordan Carter said...

Decide it's an employment issue and raise it with the leader enabler's boss?

Press-gang the leader-enabler with those who are against the bully and make it clear that no action is not an option?

Anonymous said...

It is the leader's role to get involved - it's called leadership! Something that really can't be taught, maybe just improved.

Small reminder about the other side of bullying. I cringed when I read your post - awful situation. Yet bullying can be very quiet, eg. withholding information, esp in the workplace (been there...). I've found this quieter form the hardest type of bullying to deal with - and I did, for five years. Years of sarcasm and sickly sweetness too, in front of management as well - so I was always watching my back, and I got the bitch (boss) back many times by proving her wrong (within earshot of the 'leaders'). Nice people around me knew, felt for me, did nothing. And hey, I was working for a not for profit outfit with a program the CEO supported - it was a leadership program. More a feelgood waste of money.

portia said...

If you can't cut the bully out of your life, maybe you can train them. This requires focussing on behavior rather than feelings, since the bully has made it abundantly clear that other people's feelings mean nothing to them.

Can you and your fellow non-enabler collectively decide on some boundaries and corresponding consequences? As in "(Offending behavior) is not acceptable. When you do (offending behavior) I will (consequence)."

Frex, bully yells on the phone. "Yelling in my ear is not acceptable and if you don't stop now I will hang up." Then do it - can't be waving an unloaded gun, ever.

I guess I'm visualising a social or familial bully, rather than a work-related one.

Julie said...

Thanks for the feedback (and support).

Your suggestions are good too and I will consider them, thanks :-)

What's really surprising me right now is my own physical response to this situation.

Although I deal with difficult people frequently in my work largely with few nerves, right now, having made another attempt at corresponding with the Bully and the Leader about resolving the current matter, I'm shaky, sweaty, have mild palpitations and am generally feeling wound up. All the responses I would have had as a teenager and which I no longer generally have to other bullies. I think there is an added dimension to this that I would normally have asked my father for advice on this kind of thing, and he's no longer here to ask. I shall continue to observe myself!

lmrb, you are so right about the less overt bullies, they are awful. They make out you are paranoid, and then you do become a bit paranoid too, because that's a natural response to their bullying style.

I find email very useful now in work situations, as you can copy people in and create a useful paper trail. Just need to remember to keep your cool!

I think we need more people in the world who stand up to bullies when they are not the target themselves. Encouraging and building empathy is a path to that I hope, which is one of the reasons I am so passionate about programmes like Roots of Empathy.

Brett Dale said...

Sorry to hear what you are going through, way back in the early 1990's myself and others were victims of this horrific work place bully, it was at a fastfood resturant and everytime he was reported to the owner, the owner would say "First I have heard about it"

This went on for three years.

I wish I could give you some good advice, but Im afraid my advice isnt that good.

I would suggest you log every incident.

I also think you should try not to show that this bullies actions is affecting you.

(the guy at the fastfood resturant seemed to like when people reacted to his bullying)

If they are blocking a door, just laugh at off and say "I will go around the long way"

On the other hand, that is probably the wrong thing to do.

Have you gone to this person's manager? Will they be helpful?

I hope you get it sorted it quick!

Brett Dale said...

Opps I should of read the read more bit first.

So its not a work place bully??

Then I would just cut this person out of my life completly.

Craig Ranapia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig Ranapia said...


YOu may also find useful a tactic I used on a telephone bully. Get some tech support, start recording your calls from this person and open your side of the conversation with a clear and unambiguous warning that you're doing so.

Realistically, it doesn't deal to the underlying attitude dysfunction. Practically, the offender either develops some phone manners or gives you concrete evidence to deal to the oh, you're just PMS-ing/totally misunderstood what I was really saying/out to get me" routine.

bronwyn said...

One thing I've found in similar situations is that people generally do what works for them - so if bullying you is getting them what they want, there's not much incentive to change unfortuantely.

I'm sure you've probably tried this, but is there anyway you can get this person to step away from you/the project/the social group that they're invovled with?

If not, is there any way you can stop things from working for this person when they start this bullying behaviour?

Good on you for calling it out though, it's not an easy thing to deal with and hopefully just by discussing it you're starting to see a way through it. Don't beat yourself up for responsding in a particular way. I remember a time when I was dealing with a particular bully (it got so bad that I had to have a panic button installed in my office, which I never had to use thank goodness) I had similar sorts of reactions.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear. It gives me palpitations just reading this. (I think I have PTSD from a previous bullying experience -- only half joking, too. Left a great job over that one.)
Bullies can't be trained. So if there's any way to have nothing to do with the person ... but I suppose if that option were available, you'd have taken it. Your point about how "bystanders" should stand up for people being bullied is excellent. Wish I had advice.
I frequently wonder:
-- Do bullies know they are bullies? I don't think so. Their behaviour, like all behaviour, is rationalized. Which raises the scary possibility that we, too, could be bullies at times. If accused, no doubt we would have a "yeah, but X had to be told Y because of Z" or "I had to do X to Y because of Z." So...
-- How do you know if you are a bully, or if you are engaging in bullying behaviour? (One woman's bully is another's assertive behaviour -- sort of thing.)

Mikaere Curtis said...

It appears that this bully uses communication (yelling etc) as their weapon.

Would it be possible to have a team meeting to discuss communications best-practice ? I would frame the objective as developing some guidelines/rules about what is best practice for successful communication. These could include rules about keeping the tone pleasant and non-accusatory etc.

In any case, don't use the bully's actions as examples of bad practice, focus on getting a set of rules that everyone needs to follow.

Make sure the rules are agreed and circulated in writing, post them on the wall etc.

Then, once the bully transgresses, you actually have an objective measure to take to the leader.

This means the leader is unable to hide behind the wall of "it's not bullying, it's a disagreement".

You'll probably not see an attitude change in the bully, but you *will* have a line that, once they cross it, you can disengage by saying "we have agreed not to communicate in this manner, I will talk to you once you are able to communicate properly".

The door-blocking technique is trickier. If there is no alternative route, I would ask politely 3 times for them to move aside, then warn once very sternly that you are going to walk through the door and that they should make way, then assertively walk through the door.

If that does not seem to be the best approach, perhaps you could simply say "The time is now xx, and I'm going to time how long it takes you move out of the way." Then stop talking, turn away and cross your arms over you chest and monitor the doorway with peripheral vision. Don't communicate, and wait for them to leave. Report the incident (and the time you had to wait) to the leader.

Brett Dale said...

The door blocking thing is awful.

I would take the Bart Simpson approach. :-)

Hugh said...

Excellent point Anon - I don't think anybody ever self-identifies as a bully, certainly not as an adult anyway.

I hope all the people offering solidarity and expressing their horror at bullying here have taken the time to do a quick check of their own behaviour. It's all too easy to tell ourselves "I'd never do something like that!"

Karen said...

Just punch her in the face, you wuss

Brett Dale said...

Bullies need to be confronted.


Natalie Ferguson said...

I find it odd how little we stand up for each other. We're not talking about kids here, I am shocked constantly at how grown people are too spineless/self absorbed to stand up for people who are clearly getting harrased/bullied. It's not hard, it doesn't even have to be dramatic. You just stop laughing at their awful jokes and insinuations and speak up when you think someone is being awful. Bullies are cowards, you don't actually have to do an awful lot to make them feel ridiculous - as long as it's not just left up to the victim.