The strategy you should use when faced with angry bullies at work

Wounds from aggression and bullying can heal with time and absence from the source of the problem, but this won’t cause the issue to disappear of its own accord.

Aggression in all its manifestations is exhausting. Some of you may feel “battle fatigue” and just want your lives back. Let’s try and understand what is going on and consider the best strategy going forward.

Handle with care

If bullies were emotionally easy to take down, no-one would be having this discussion. Aggressive, insecure bullies build up considerable power bases. They can be quite forceful personalities to begin with. Frequently they are smart and adroit at repartee, leaving others at a disadvantage, and wounded. They have their admirers (fan base) and can switch to charm at the drop of a hat. Notice the palpable relief in the room when a bully is “behaving”; phew, the sun is shining, no more storms and tempests.

Oh, watch, the weather’s changing again—batten down the hatches. Where did that twister spring from? Funny that—the emotional weather to which these people subject others is insecure as well. There’s no question it’s in most people’s interest to develop some protective gear for dealing with aggressive, insecure people and bullies. What is this gear? Manage yourself calmly and professionally. Make sure you do the right thing.

Recognise that aggression frequently arises from insecurity

Insecurity does not merely connote cowering body language or a sprawling inferiority complex. It may arise from the aggressor’s sense that they never have enough of something. This might be recognition, insufficient love or affirmation, or needing to prove they are better than others. The list goes on.

Insecurity, like a craving for sugar, can be bottomless, and the person whose insecurity is strong will make others “pay” for it in some way. Think of those noisy types on social media, constantly yammering about what they’re up to, flashing everyone endless angry comments, and engaging in pointless argy-bargy. That may be insecurity.

Wherever the insecure person comes from, you can’t miss him/her because they feed on attention and aggressively pursue it. If it’s not in person, it’ll be via messaging. It may be direct agro, or the passive-aggressive type of communications.

Consider what needs to be done

Think about that bullying colleague, friend or family member who’s just made life miserable. Or the boss whose EQ sonar goes red whenever s/he senses vulnerable prey. These problems aren’t easily vanquished, but you can begin the process by asking the direct question about what’s really causing them to do this. It’s important not to become aggressive or accusing when posing the question/s. Think of it instead as a controlled detonation or burning.

Barricade yourself emotionally from the smoke and bits showering everywhere once you’ve asked the question and be quietly, compassionately persistent. Don’t hammer the bully. Make it clear what you won’t tolerate the behaviour any longer, and pose the question. Give them space to explode—hopefully without much collateral damage in the process—and to really think about who they’re hurting. Is it ever right to punish others over someone’s perceived lack of a thing they’re “entitled” to receive?

Be in charge of your own reactions

Bullies thrive on reaction—so, don’t give it to them. If you need to leave the room, house, or building, do so. When you’re away from them, decide what must be done. It could be anything from a request for them to cease their behaviour (otherwise you and others will leave), to choosing the “controlled detonation” approach mentioned above. The latter can only be successfully carried out, with thought, research, and great care. There is risk with either strategy, but you need to regain the emotional ground surrendered to the bully.

Starve them of attention, and seek supportive allies—not because you are insecure, but because bullies cannot thrive in isolation. Even internet trolls need “affirmation” of their bile.  When they’re on their own with no clicks rewarding them, their words are their own description of them.

Take time to consider healthy tactics. It’s a new year still, so use whatever space you can to create, to replenish and to reconsider.

Seek advice from trusted sources, and keep an open mind for what’s out there. Emotional strength and its renewal can be found through strategic retreat.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace. See the rest of Eve’s blogs here.


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