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As much as I hate to recommend self-defense and a change on the part of employees to combat bullying, in a toxic environment the ability to defend oneself may be essential to corporate survival. A stance which is not combative, but rather that rises to the occasion. When faced with a verbal attack or unleashes a torrent of negativity, individuals typically feel caught off-guard. What we need in the face of a bully is a verbal shield, a repertoire of behavior that serves to protect you from assault. Assertiveness is a way to express you needs in a respectful, non-threatening fashion to other people, and avoid being trampled by a controller. Over-control results in supervision that is suffocating. It’s an exercise in managerial puffery, or the exploitation of others to achieve dominance; a form of managerial hubris that manifests in bullying behavior.

Mental rape at work is aided and abetted by ambiguous policies, procedures that keep individuals dependent on the bully in charge, and a lack of mechanisms by which to provide input or upward feedback. Employees who are bullied are booked, tried, and punished, all within the manager’s mental closet of courtroom justice. They are chastised by the boss’s palpable sense of suspicion preceding their arrest, and by the subsequent ostracism which can thereafter occur. Heavy handed managers breed workers who are either defiant, or who furtively seek to avoid them. 

 What constitutes verbal aggression and abuse? 

  1. screaming, yelling
  2. using words that are demeaning, or belittling; language that is designed to let the other person know who is in charge
  3. a conversational style that is punitive, accusatory, and condescending in nature
  4. giving other people orders, instead of talking to them as equals
  5. ridicule, sarcasm
  6. exaggeration

Although each of us has the free will to focus as we wish, persistent negative or extreme events have the potential to overwhelm our sensing mechanisms. Bullies are only interested in one thing – bulldozing their targets to achieve dominance. Below are some ways to stand your ground when faced with aggressive speech and to turn the situation to your benefit: 

  • Choose to set the behavioral standard by which others will be measured. In Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People (in print since 1934), he suggests disarming others through acknowledging your perceived transgression, and suggesting the punishment yourself. His common sense tactics place the emphasis on solving the problem, as opposed to stirring the pot.
  • In his article, “How to talk with the bully at work,” Rich Gallagher provides some great advice for bully handling. He suggests that following three tacks:

    • acknowledge and validate the bully’s agenda to create dialogue between the two of you. If
      individuals feel that  are being heard, they may feel less combative.
    • ask questions to deflect their anger. Information gathering may also help you to find the
      actual root of the problem. 
    • set boundaries. Explain to the bully how you want to be treated, while at the same time
      affirming the legitimacy of their concern. A wallflower stance in which you are steamrolled
      rarely earns respect from the other party. 
  • Develop “convenient deafness.” Fisher explains that this technique is used by children, who “tune out” what they do not wish to hear.
  • Take assertiveness training. Some personalities are more susceptible to trampling than others. Voicing one’s needs is a learned skill, developed through practice. One of the best remedies for shyness has in my experience been Toastmasters. As a former president of Northwest Houston Toastmasters, I can personally attest to the confidence building and the ability to be quick on one’s feet that being part of this group engenders. Toastmasters is a relatively inexpensive option to traditional leadership classes that are short-lived in nature. The experience permits a life long approach to self development (in a nurturing environment) that teaches several important skills. Toastmaster newbies are given a series of “speeches” that they must master, each one building upon the skills learned in previous lessons. Upon completion of the ten required speeches, individuals earn the distinction of Certified Toastmaster, or CTM. I have witnessed persons suffering from anxiety and a fear of public speaking win district level contests and subsequently assume leadership positions. Extemporaneous speech, evaluation, and prepared speeches are all ways that Toastmaster members grow as both presenters and as leaders.
    _________________________________________________________________________________________________ Abuse Abuse is rampant in an atmosphere where voice is absent. If your organization does not promote (or even discourages) free expression at work, then a more creative and proactive stance on your part may be necessary.
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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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One Response
  1. The book “27 Powers of Persuasion” suggests in chapter 4 an approach that complements “convenient deafness.” “If it’s just you and one other person having an argument, the natural tendency is to respond to every attack. Next time, instead of responding, silently nod as if you see the other person’s point and just let it sit. Give it a few minutes…. All things tend toward balance, and people innately know when they’ve crossed the line…. In group situations… often you can sit back and not respond at all while the person’s words hang in the air and the rest of the group comes to their own conclusions…. That reinforces you as the leader and uniter, and it subtly puts the opponent in his or her place without your having to say anything.”

    On another tack: good support for Toastmasters! I made it to ATM Silver, I think, before my daughter’s health led me to drop almost everything except work and taking care of her. Great group!

  2. Donn King on February 28th, 2011 at 6:36 pm