How to Successfully Deal with the Office Bully

By | 2017-01-13T13:42:26+00:00 July 20th, 2009|Categories: Respectful Workplace|Tags: , |2 Comments

This week we welcome Margaret W. Jones, Ph.D, author of Not of Making: Bullying, Scapegoating and Misconduct in Churches. She shares with us her experience about being bullied in hopes this will help others overcome similar situations.


Overcoming Workplace Bullying

Over the years, I have directly experienced and witnessed bullying at work and in churches. Only at the time, I didn’t think of it as that. Bullying was something children do to each other at school. When they walked across the stage to pick up a high school diploma they magically mature and stop bullying others. No one ever told me adults often bully each other. That was something I learned later from my own painful experiences.

A number of years ago I accepted a job at a state developmental center. My immediate supervisor was concerned that the masters’ level psychologist on the mental health team was allowing the social worker to assume his responsibilities for developing and monitoring behavior plans. The social worker who lacked training in behavior modification and data analysis produced plans that were ineffective depriving clients of competent care. With little or no thought about the politics, I replaced the psychologist on the team. My boss was pleased with my work and shielded me from the inevitable complaints from the social worker. After six months my boss resigned and I got another supervisor who felt the masters level psychologist had been treated unfairly.

That is when my troubles began.

Without the support of my supervisor, I was soon being accused of insensitivity towards the other team members. Instead of defending myself I strove to be the best psychologist and team player I could be. Problems only escalated. The nurse on the team pulled me aside and contrary to everyone else’s advice told me to be more aggressive. That didn’t make sense so I ignored his advice. The conflict worsened and for my own sanity, I risked being fired when I withdrew from the mental health team over my supervisor’s objections. Years later while recovering from bullying in my church I finally understood what the nurse was trying to tell me. The problem never was that I was insensitive. By trying to be more “sensitive” I gave credence to my adversaries complaints and inadvertently encouraged their behavior. When you are bullied you need to push back. Appeasement only gives bullies permission to continue their abusive behavior.

Now let me tell you of two successes I have had.

I learned from a subordinate that a staff person from another department had said some derogatory things about me. I called her and set up an appointment to speak to her. I walked over to her office and told her what I had heard. She denied it. I responded that I hoped that if she did have any complaints she would speak to me first and not talk about me behind my back. She agreed and that was the end of that.

Years later I had problems with a psychiatrist who began sending me insulting notes. At first I threw the notes away but then I realized I should keep them. A colleague urged me to take the notes and speak to the executive director of the agency. When I did so the director understood that he was facing a possible harassment suit and spoke to the psychiatrist. The harassment ended. The psychiatrist then became friendly greeting me and engaging me in small talk about his church and family.

Work is a competitive environment.

People usually want to earn more money for themselves and their families. If they perceive you as a threat to their desire for recognition and/or promotion they may begin bullying you by gossiping, criticizing and/or complaining to your superiors. Often the most aggressive and unethical person wins.

You cannot ignore or avoid bullying and you must respond assertively. Be aware and pay attention to the motives of others especially if they start treating you badly. If someone criticizes or makes fun of you agree with the part that is true and ignore the rest. For instance, I had a client who was called bugged eyes and ridiculed. When he responded with “You are right my eyes are crossed”, his attacker backed off. Sometimes wit and humor may ease tensions. Other times you simply have to tell someone to stop. If they continue to tease you that tells you they don’t care how you feel and are likely to continue their bullying. Another trick is to initiate contact with the person who is bullying you. Stop by their office in the morning and say hello. Sit down and have a cup of coffee with them. Get to know them and have them get to know you. Bullies paradoxically often want to be friends. If none of these things stop the bullying or teasing, you need to report it. If that doesn’t stop it then you probably will have to look for another job.

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About the Author:

Margaret W. Jones, Ph.D is a licensed psychologist in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. After some personally painful experiences in churches, she published Not of My Making: Bullying, Scapegoating and Misconduct in Churches in June 2008. She hopes to get people talking about the long term impact of bullying and what steps they can and should take to prevent it. Dr. Jones and her husband own Adult & Child Counseling Associates, a successful counseling and coaching practice in New England.

2 Comments

  1. Kelsey July 24, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    I greatly appreciate reading this. I am always curious about other people’s experiences with bullies. Bullies are usually bullied, so “kill em with kindness” can be a very effective approach. In the EAP industry, this issue is common place and coaching individuals about assertiveness has been effective. I hope to read more about your strategies. Thank you!

  2. Margaret Jones July 24, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Thank you for your kind words. Bullying is a common problem not only at work and school but in church also. It is a way of establishing dominance. Racial and sexual harassment are really cases of bullying where the target is picked because of their race and/or gender. In the past the bully was certain no one would step in to stop the bullying. In addition to teaching targets of bullying to be more assertive it is also important that those in authority establish a climate where harassment for any reason is not tolerated. It is in the interest of employers to take steps to curtail bullying because often it is the best and the brightest who are forced out of a job. This creates a brain/talent drain making it harder for the employer to successfully compete in the marketplace.

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