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Dealing with the bully in the workplace

There’s been a lot of coverage in the media lately about bullying and its serious, often life-threatening, implications. I believe that individuals who bully or attempt to dominate are in emotional pain. Their fear may stem from one of the following:

  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of not being heard
  • Fear of not being in control
  • Fear of being dominated
  • Fear of rejection.

This does not mean that their behavior is acceptable; it does mean that we have to consider how we deal with them to resolve the situation while enabling the business at hand to continue. One way to reduce our dread of these individuals and remain in control is to ask questions.

Ask question to defuse
Questions prevent us from responding in a manner that matches the tone of the incoming information. They put us back in the driver’s seat and enable us to keep our own emotions under control. They force us to think differently. Our mouths aren’t open, and we are not ready to pounce as soon as the other person finishes speaking. Questions enable us to slow down our cognitive processes and require the other person to slow their thoughts. They calm both persons.

Questions give us time to think about what we need to accomplish in the current circumstances and how we can assist the other person to engage constructively, without derailing the efforts of the group. The last thing you want to do is to feel powerless dealing with a bully or a dominator.

Questions level the playing field. They require the other person to think before he provides his or her answer. Also, this space provides time for you to determine where you can agree and, depending on the response, what you would need to know next. It is important to lead the person in a constructive direction and avoid pushing, shoving, or belittling the bully in any way.

What type of questions?
Different types of questions may be asked. For example, “Could you outline the risks you see associated with each of the suggestions on the table?” acknowledges that the individual’s opinion is valuable and it requires him/her to focus on the ideas of others, as well as his or her own opinions. Sometimes individuals need to speak to think.

This question requires the bully to open up. You never know, but it is possible that they will be convinced that the group option is the better one. This person will know that you are being respectful and not agreeing to engage in a battle. As you listen, you may discover that she/he has some valid points that were not being heard because of demeanor and your response to it. You may wish to put new thoughts into the group or take them under consideration.

That question is very different from barking, “What is your point?” Such a question only requires the bully to focus on his or her thoughts. There's no need to consider other opinions.  “What is your point?” isolates the individual from the group and keeps him/her stuck in the same way of thinking.

Another approach
A third approach would be to acknowledge the bully's ideas and simultaneously determine how shehe would address the perceived flaws. You could say, “We could do X. However, do you think it is wise to take this course of action because if it does not succeed, it would mean X, Y, and Z? How would we justify taking those risks?” This type of question acknowledges the issues, yet provides time for the individual to address the risks directly and know her/his voice was heard.

The type of question you ask will depend on your circumstances. The key is to ask questions that demonstrate respect for the individual, require the person to think, provide you with quality information, and assist the bully or the dominator to become a team player.

About GDP Consulting Inc.:

GDP Consulting advises clients in both Canada and the US through an office in Illinois. In addition to her expertise in governance, Dr. Kelleher-Flight and her firm provide conflict resolution and mediation services to clients and give workshops and training sessions for management and boards everywhere in North America.  Please see Amazon buy guidebooks for the boardroom—with excellent tips and guidance for anyone in management, on boards, or aspirations to move up the corporate ladder.

Creating A Functional Board


The Productive Boardroom.


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