Some people are mean by nature, others jerks by choice. Some people like to hurt others physically, emotionally, and psychologically to make themselves feel more powerful or important. While a good deal of national attention has recently been given to bullying among school- and college-age kids, that hasn't been the case for bullying among working professionals.
How do you deal with a bully at work? Amy Gallo, editor of the Harvard Business Review, spoke with experts about how to best deal with in-office aggression. Find out what the experts told HBR and start squashing your office's Napoleon.
Pinpoint where the aggression is coming from
The first step is to find out why the bully is taking his or her aggression out on you. Nathanael Fast, professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, says, "We often see powerful people behave aggressively toward less powerful people when their competence is questioned." Gary Namie, the founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute and author of The Bully at Work, says talented people can become bullying victims: "People who are skilled and well-liked are the most frequent targets precisely because they pose a threat," he says. So it may help to stroke the aggressor’s ego. Fast found in his study that low levels of aggression and bullying could be defused by showing gratitude to the troublemaking colleague. "In our study, we saw that if the subordinate offered gratitude to the boss, it wiped out the effect," he says. Small actions, like complimenting the person for something he does well, can help.
Don't blame yourself, but review your actions
Bullying is never acceptable. It is also unacceptable to accept blame for being bullied. But it is a good idea to be aware of how you are being perceived. In a highly competitive environment, not many people "prioritize politeness," Gallo writes. Ask a confidant how the majority of your co-workers feel you treat them. If there is a behavior or action that is being misinterpreted--and that the aggressor is overreacting to--you can stop. This doesn't mean to look for blame in yourself, though. "Targets regularly assume it's their fault," Namie says.
Stand up for yourself
"It's important to balance not being threatening with not being a doormat, which just invites more aggression," Fast says. When the employee's behavior is unacceptable, call it out right then and there. Do not let the person treat you poorly or call you a name. Stand up to him, and be strong and articulate. "I believe very strongly in making immediate corrections," Woodward says. Whenever the bully starts with demeaning, disrespectful antics, even if it's during a company meeting, do not let it slide, even once. "The message should be: Don't mess with me--it won't be worth your effort," Namie says.
Don't go at it alone
If you do not have friends, acquaintances, or alliances at work, you should build them. "Everybody should have alliances at work--peers and people above and below who can be your advocates and champions," Woodward says. Get people who support you in your corner. If the bullying can be handled informally, hash it out between yourselves. If there is violence or the threat of violence, tell your boss or human resources, Woodward says.
Break down the cost to business
When it is time to get your boss and HR involved, do not focus on what the person said and did--unless it is violent or emotionally scarring. The last thing you want to do is to start a he-said/she-said argument. "Talk about how it's affecting morale and performance," Fast says. Namie agrees: "Don't tell a story of emotional wounds. Make an argument that the person is costing the organization money," he says.
Realize there are limitations
You need to realize that you cannot control someone else's actions. People are going to act the way they are going to act and it is up to you to defend yourself. If it is an outright abusive situation, it needs to stop. "The only time I've seen a bully change is when they are publicly fired. The sanctions don't work," Woodward says. If a leader doesn't take charge, you should leave, if possible. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 40 percent of respondents to an online survey say they stay in a bullying situation because of pride. If that's the case in your situation, you need to realize that taking the high road with irrational people is winning. Losing is to let them elicit an aggressive reaction from you.