A while back I posted about dealing with workplace bullies and mentioned Mariah and her bullying co-worker Bob. Mariah had a nasty run-in with Bob the other day and called for some support. It seems that Bob has become aware that Mariah's boss (who is also Bob's boss) has been working with Mariah on her IDP (individual development plan) and grooming her for her next position. As Bob walked past Mariah in the hallway he initiated a conversation with her:
Bob (skeptical): I hear Angie is working with you to get a Manager job.
Mariah (surprised): We're working on some development plans so I can learn more about the business.
Bob: You will never get that job. That's a really big job. There is no way you have the experience to move into a role like that.
Mariah (stunned and a little defensive): Well I am just trying to learn what I can.
Bob: What does Angie have you doing?
Mariah: I'm taking some classes and shadowing a couple of the Managers.
Bob (dismissive): There's no way that's enough. You'll never have that job.
Mariah went back to her office and was upset and distracted the rest of the afternoon. Later she called me to talk over the incident. In order to help her, I first had to get her to stop re-living the experience, and start analyzing it. She was so busy ranting about how awful Bob had been, that she wasn't able to strategize a response. I reminded her that she was looking to move up in her career - not become best friends with Bob, so she needed to take a more practical approach to the experience.
Once she calmed down, we looked at the situation objectively. First we identified that Bob's behavior met most of the characteristics of bullying from my earlier post - it involved power issues, it was "slippery" behavior, and there were boundary issues involved. Then we talked about another aspect of workplace bullying.
Bullying in the workplace will very often catch you off guard.
Why is this? Because bullying is so unprofessional. Most of us work hard to manage our own emotions productively and deal with our co-workers in a positive, adult manner. So we are surprised when someone takes a back alley approach to an issue. Bullies count on this and use it to maintain their posture as a bully.
In this case, Mariah handled Bob's initial statement okay. She gave a vague, non-committal response. But when Bob went on the attack ("You'll never get that job"), Mariah was caught off guard and responded as most of us do when caught off guard - she talked too much. She started tell Bob about her development plans which gave him the leverage he needed to criticize and put her down. Mariah worked to come up with a plan to deal with situations like this when they occur again (and they will occur again - no matter how high you go, there will always be someone that you need to learn to deal with).
First, she spent some time reflecting on why Bob caught her off guard, and what it was about his comments that made her feel defensive (his insistence that she would not achieve her goals). Then she reviewed her own goals and her plans for achieving them. Satisfied that she was on a good path, she then spent some time creating a list of professional, pleasant phrases she could use if Bob (or anyone else) catches her off guard with a mean comment again. They include:
- Silence (yes, silence is perfectly acceptable when someone is a jerk)
- "Hmmm...I never thought of it that way."
- "I don't know why you would say that."
- "Meow - that was brutal." (said with hands held up, palms towards the bully, with a light tone) Note - use this one only in repeated situations of bullying where you need to send a strong signal.
The key with each of these phrases (with exception of the last one) is that they are pleasant and non-committal. Mariah does not reveal her hand, and she does not engage emotionally in the bully's world. She simply lets it roll off her and moves on. The last phase is to be used as a last resort - a warning that they bully is starting to use up your good will towards him.
You may wonder why I don't suggest reporting the bully earlier. Simple. Mariah wants to move up. She wants to eventually be the person that others seek out when they have problems. If she runs for help every time she is uncomfortable, she will not be seen as someone with leadership potential. She needs to learn to resolve minor annoyances like this on her own. She wants to use her interaction time with her bosses to talk about how to help the business grow and show that she can be a player in those plans. Therefore, reporting Bob is a last resort. (Standard disclaimer: If the person is harassing you sexually or physically - report it immediately).
Bottom line: Work is just that...work. It is not a tea party. Be pleasant and professional, but don't worry if not everyone likes you or plays nice. Learn to deal with it and move on to more productive circumstances!