Handling Adult Bullies—At Your Job
Mean girls don't disappear once you graduate from school. Our parenting expert, Rosalind Wiseman, received a letter from a woman struggling with a workplace bully making her 9-to-5 miserable. Here's what happened, why it occurred and how anyone can regain their power while keeping the peace.
Q. I'm a 27-year-old woman who never learned how to handle bullies. I'm currently working with a woman who behaves not unlike a middle-school mean girl. I've never spoken to her (she's refused to speak to me from the minute she started). She has successfully made me an outcast. When people realized they had no reason to dislike me, they stopped and now she's on a campaign to do it again.
I'm her primary victim, but she's terrorizing a few others. She usually does this by coming between the friends or even family members of the people she targets (charming them into feeling like she's their best friend, latching on tight and then using suggestion to turn them against the target little by little). The thing is, I love my job and I love all my coworkers, but this one person is creating such a hostile environment that it's causing me extreme stress. I tried talking to my supervisor, and he told me not to let it get to me. Please offer advice about how to end this once and for all. Thank you.
A. The answer you need begins with the very first sentence you wrote to me. Like so many adults, you never learned how to handle bullies. They had power over you when you were young and they still have power over you now.
When I work with young people, they often feel that bullies have mythological power over them, and I think that’s what is still happening to you. Look back on the way you described the situation—you are allowing this woman to make decisions about your own conduct at your place of work. You’re also making a lot of assumptions. Because you’ve never spoken to her, you’re relying on second- and third-hand information. I’m not saying she doesn’t isolate people. She clearly has been rude and unprofessional to you. What I am saying is that you bring a lot of baggage to this situation and it's stopping you from handling things in a way where you have any control. The moment she didn’t talk to you, you responded by allowing her to set the terms of your dynamic with her.
Here’s the bottom line: Your reaction to her is compromising your professionalism. Your stress level is hurting your job effectiveness as well. For the sake of your emotional health and your career, it's time for you to face the problem. But I’m not going to advise you to make some dramatic scene. Instead, take a step that looks small but isn’t. Have a quick face-to-face conversation with her in which you say something like, “This is uncomfortable to admit, but for some reason we haven’t talked and it’s important to me that we have a good working relationship.”
Whatever she says in response, your goal is to shift the dynamic between you so that you have a little bit more control over the interaction. You’re not doing this with the expectation that things will change between the two of you or that she’ll in any way respond positively. That’s not the definition of success here. Success for you will be to begin taking steps to advocate for yourself while treating her with dignity. By conducting yourself in this manner, you are taking control of your professional reputation.
Have you ever had to deal with a workplace bully? Post a comment and tell me about it here.