Welcome to “Dear Dana”, our regular column to give you career and workplace advice/coaching. Please write in and tell me about a career challenge or frustration you’re facing at the office! – Dana Theus
Dear Dana: I’m a manager at a small automotive parts factory and I need advice on how to handle a bully. There are three of us managing the three shifts. The first shift manager has been there 31 years but only managing for 4. I’ve just been hired with over 20 years of management experience in another industry and the other manager has a similar background and has also been recently hired. The first shift manager (I’ll call her Darlene) is very controlling. She involves herself in enforcing discipline over the employees on the other shifts, regularly calls my foreman at home during her shift to complain about the things our employees have done, and generally nit picks both of the other shifts incessantly. As of late she’s even been going through the garbage cans of myself and the other manager to see what notes we throw away, to what purpose I cannot imagine. Several of her employees have been rude and insulting to me in a public work setting and have a habit of bullying my employees. I’ve taken my complaints to her and to our manager but nothing is being done to rein in her unprofessional behavior. I’ve started wondering if I made a mistake taking this job. Worried in Wisconsin
You’ve got a tough situation, all right. Being bullied by a colleague can be even harder than being bullied by a boss. But make no mistake about it, you and your team are being bullied and so you need to act accordingly.
Bullies Thrive On Your Negative Emotions
The most important thing to know is that bullies thrive on your reactions to them. The more you react from a place of anxiety or anger, the more you invite her to take actions that bother you. As soon as you stop acting from these emotions, you become less interesting to her and while she may start targeting others who work for you or alongside you, you can then put your energy into helping them minimize the damage she can do. So the simplest advice on how to handle a bully is to learn to handle yourself and your reactions to the bullying.
Bullies are drawn to negative emotions like bees to pollen. Provoking such emotions in you is how they’ve learned to get attention and they’re masters at eliciting everything from annoyance to see-red wrath. When you’re feeling anger and anxiety because of what they do, it inhibits your ability to perform and makes it too easy for you to do something, such as overreact, that makes you look like the bad guy. The fact that Darlene goes through your trash is immature on her part, but it’s also the kind of technique she’s perfected to get under your skin. Be sure not to throw anything away at the office that you wouldn’t want her to see.
To make yourself a less attractive target and improve your ability to handle all emotionally stressful situations, the first thing I always advise my clients to do is become skilled at detriggering their emotions. Once you learn to release and manage your triggers, you gain the ability to choose when and how to express anger and how to act from an authentically neutral emotional state. This choice gives you power in relationships because you have more control over your feelings and your communication than you do when you’re triggered. And you almost always have more control over your emotional state than the other person who’s being difficult. I had a client once who was being mercilessly bullied by a colleague in an adjacent team. After a few weeks of detriggering, she was able to avoid being goaded into conflict with the bully and after a month, the bully started picking on someone else. When my client was no longer able to be triggered by the bully, she became much less interesting to the bully, who went elsewhere.
Not only does learning to detrigger your emotions help you manage bullying relationships, it also helps you manage all your relationships and your stress levels as well. Every single one of my clients who has integrated detriggering into their interpersonal skill set has seen conflicts reduce in family relationships as well as professional ones, including with teenage children and in-laws. One way of looking at the bully in your life is as an incentive to develop the personal and interpersonal skills to manage conflict at a deeper level and learn to control your emotions authentically and healthily (i.e., not tamping them down until they explode unexpectedly) which will support all your relationships.
Draw Boundaries to Limit the Bully’s Impact
The second most important thing for you to consider is where you want to draw your boundaries, across which you will not allow her to step. Drawing boundaries with bullies is tricky for a number of reasons:
- They often take boundaries as a sign of anger and anxiety and sometimes feed on them
- They become skilled at turning your boundary into a sign of your unreasonableness to people who are sympathetic to them
- They often enjoy crossing boundaries to try to provoke you
All that said, drawing your boundaries is essential, for you and even more importantly for the people who report to you. Your foreman, who is receiving the off-hours calls, is being put in a very difficult situation . It’s appropriate for you to step in and establish a protocol for managing issues between shifts that respects the people involved and helps manage legitimate issues. An example of an appropriate boundary for you to set is to ask your colleague, Darlene, to bring all complaints and issues to you directly. You should instruct your staff (all of them) to direct Darlene to you for handling those issues, and to refuse to engage with her directly. Tell your foreman not to answer the phone after her shift if it’s Darlene calling and to tell her via some other channel that you’ve asked her to direct all communications to you.
I realize this can be complicated when there are interpersonal relationships involved. Darlene may have gone out of her way to befriend some folks on your crew to try to get the inside scoop etc. Your best bet here is to detrigger your annoyance and/or sense of betrayal about this and ask your staff to respect the new policy. You may have some additional work to do in building trust with your employees but this is work you should do anyway as their manager.*
You should also inform your boss and other colleague of the boundaries you’re setting with Darlene and ask him to support you in holding them. Bosses often don’t want to get in the middle of conflicts between their team members, but they should play a role. That said, complaining about it without taking steps yourself to address the situation creates work for your boss I’m sure he’d rather avoid and can make you look as bad as Darlene for not handling things well. Your boss will appreciate that you’re trying to handle the situation as much as you can on your own and will probably be more willing to support you when you do this.
Also, collaborate with your other colleague who’s experiencing the same issues. Ask her to learn detriggering too so Darlene can’t play you off against each other emotionally. Work together and take a similar approach to the boundaries you draw. This will begin to isolate Darlene and make it clearer to everyone how unproductive her behavior is. Also, when you take a leadership role in establishing ways of handling issues that are professional and businesslike (instead of relying on gossip and interpersonal conflict) you look better and she looks worse. Your personal brand gets a little shine. The trick is that you must be authentically emotionally neutral so when she lashes out it doesn’t backfire on you.
Working with difficult people is not the (only) reason to leave a job
You say you wonder if taking this job was a mistake. I don’t think so. In my experience personally and working with clients who have tough relationships to navigate at work I’ve found that the difficult people give you the opportunity to grow into a better leader and a better person. As I mentioned above, when you learn how to handle a bully and manage conflict well, you not only become a better professional asset to your company, you also become a better friend, partner and parent. As a bonus, you learn to lower your stress levels, which contributes to your overall health and well being.
My advice is to take on the challenge of handling your Darlene bully by both becoming a more emotionally calm person (who genuinely is not riled up by her behavior) and by becoming a better leader by putting management tools (i.e., protocols, processes and policies) in place to mitigate her impact on yourself, your staff and the business. You may choose to leave sooner than you might otherwise, counting Darlene as part of the reason, but I advise you not to do it until you’ve had some success in dealing with her. She won’t be the last bully you encounter and the sooner you learn to handle a bully, the sooner you feel better, stop attracting them and step up to higher levels of leadership.
Good luck and let me know how it goes!
P.S. – Have a question you’d like anonymous support on? Write me!
P.P.S. — I’ve recently started a new Facebook group to share inspiration, humor and learning, a safe harbor from the stresses and confusions of Work/Life. Join us there!
*If there are more interpersonal issues here, I can help you on a private basis, as the interpersonal issues can get very sticky!
Download the free InPower Coaching career health guidelines for dealing with difficult people and stress at work.