A former student of mine recently reached out to ask how to defend against a workplace bully. I felt for her--she had worked long and hard to build a valuable professional career, and here was some jerk screwing with her continued success. She is not alone. In 2019, 94 percent of employees reported being bullied in the workplace.
With her permission, I reached out to another former student, Gil Katz, who specializes in bully self-defense to see if he had some suggestions. Katz was a member of Israel's elite combat paratroopers. He is a third-degree Krav Maga Black Belt and runs a Krav Maga dojo that specializes in anti-bullying training.
Founded eight decades ago by martial artist Imi Lichtenfeld, Krav Maga is a set of simple self-defense techniques. It was originally developed for the Israeli Defense Forces and later adapted for civilian and police use. Krav Maga is an efficient system that focuses on real-life situations.
According to Katz, Krav Maga has only two principles. The first principle is that we can make use of the natural movements and reactions of the body--the reactions that we are already using. Krav Maga teaches what those reactions are and how to improve them. The second principle is that we should learn as little as possible, but enough to address as many attacks as possible--that is, maximum safety with minimum effort.
4 Ways to Use Krav Maga to Combat Bullying at Work
When a person is being bullied, it can get really threatening, humiliating, or intimidating. Katz says bullies are predators seeking those who "are passive, have low self-esteem and cannot stand up to them." How is workplace bullying different than school bullying? Both involve repeated mistreatment by one or more people. Workplace bullying tends to be less physically harmful and more psychological and verbal in nature. But the damage can be just as bad.
Bullying at work can take many forms, from explicit taunting to isolation from social gatherings and work meetings. All forms need to be addressed, if for no other reason than that they undermine company culture, lessen employee morale, and even lead to absenteeism, in my experience.
To fight bullying at work, Katz suggests four approaches:
Understand yourself. Find out what triggers your reactions and work toward staying calm and in control when bullying is taking place. This can help take the "fun" out of the bully's actions.
Make space. Step back from any situation involving bullying. Don't feel the need to react quickly. Creating time and space between you and the bully gives power and control back to you.
Communicate. Tell the bully privately what's on your mind. Many people are unaware of how they made you feel. If you talk to them about it, there is a chance you can bring it into their attention.
Report. Go to your (or their) boss or supervisor, or to HR, and report the bully.
When you're the boss at a startup, you have both a moral and legal duty to end bullying. So be prepared. Draw up an anti-bullying policy, and make it part of your code of conduct. Make it clear to everyone (including your co-founders) that such actions have no place in your startup. Katz also encourages holding an anti-bullying training in your workplace. Even a workshop or one-day seminar can empower your whole team.
Krav Maga teaches that avoiding conflict is the only true way to protect yourself. But not all fights can be avoided. So set yourself up for startup success, and consider workshops and codes of conduct to develop the culture you want to create.