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Outsmarting workplace bullies

Working in a hectic medical practice can be challenging and stressful enough, but if bullies are in your midst the stakes can skyrocket.

Bullying is rampant in US workplaces, with a 2014 workplace bullying survey revealing that 37 million American workers face abusive conduct on the job and 28 million additional workers say they have witnessed it.

“Three to four out of every 10 people are bullied,” says Dr. Lynne Curry, president of The Growth Company Inc., an Alaska-based management consulting firm that provides human resources services to more than 4,000 organizations across the US.

Bully 101: Who are these people?

Curry notes there are several types of bullies, including:

  • The angry, aggressive jerk: This person engages in name-calling, blaming, and demeaning, belittling, insulting and fault-finding behavior.
  • The scorched earth fighter: This person pulls out all the stops and is cutthroat. It is not enough for this person to win. He or she needs others to lose.
  • The silent grenade: This is the type that threatens to explode, using facial gestures and other intimidating body language with a goal of making others cower.
  • The shape-shifter: This type of bully is cunning. He charms the people from whom he seeks opportunities or intends to take advantage of and shows his claws to others. Curry says such bullies “can kiss up and kick down.”
  • The narcissist: This person feels inherently superior to others. She feels entitled to win and plays by her own rules. She operates according to a ‘me-only-me’ code.
  • The wounded rhino: This person is ill-tempered when disturbed. While the scorched-earth bully wants you gone, the wounded rhino wants you and everyone else to stay around while he dominates you.
  • The character/career assassin: This individual tells destructive stories and defames others, with a goal of taking people down.

How to outsmart a bully

While bullies are bad news for any workplace, the good news is that you don’t have to be a victim of bullying, once you learn how to apply some simple strategies aimed at stopping bullies in their tracks.

Curry defines bullying as “psychological violence in which someone is trying to get into your mind, and/or they are trying to change how you see yourself and how others see you. They are aggressively manipulating you.”

At age two, virtually everyone is a bully, but most of us outgrow it. Not so for adult bullies, who engage in repeated emotional and intentional humiliation or intimidation.

Curry says bullying can be verbal, physical or situational.

Verbal bullying includes ridiculing, insulting, slandering, name-calling behaviors, in which the bully makes someone the butt of mean jokes or abusive, offensive behavior. In some medical practices the bullies are found among people holding the top positions, according to Curry.

Physical bullying, a source of many lawsuits, includes pushing, shoving, poking, kicking, and tripping of targets, or making obscene gestures. This type of bullying can become criminal when it moves into actual assaults or threats to harm another person.

Situational bullying involves actions aimed at sabotaging, deliberately humiliating or interfering with a co-worker.

“A bully sends a salvo. You are part of that two-way interaction because you or someone in your firm reacts (to it). The bully is person one. You are person two and if you react, you now play the bully’s game,” says Curry.

The trick to not playing into the bully’s hands starts with knowing that your brain has a left and a right hemisphere. The left governs logic, analysis and problem solving, language and a sense of future consequence to our actions.

The right hemisphere governs reaction, emotion, intuition, creativity, color and space. To handle a bully, you need to think with both of your brain hemispheres.

Understanding the dynamics of confrontation

When someone aggressively targets someone, the victim’s natural tendency is to temporarily pause his or her breathing.

“The moment we feel the reaction, we move into right hemisphere (thinking). Because our breathing is halted, shallow or paused, we temporarily lose access to our left hemisphere,” says Curry, adding that examples of this situation include being so upset that you can’t talk or saying something stupid and deeply regretting it later.

To avoid doing so, when a bully targets you, concentrate on slowing and deepening your breathing. Form a mental picture of something that pleases you, like a beach with crashing waves or your children. That gives you the ability to link both brain hemispheres and not give the bully the wounded reaction he or she is looking for.

Don’t react. Don your mental Kevlar. Stand up to the person who attacks you on the very first occasion. Say that what they are doing is not okay and that it stops right here.

“Step into your power. Be willing to exit your comfort zone,” she says.

Use “you” statements, not “I” statements when responding to a bully. If you say, “It really hurt me when…” the bully has won. Instead, say, “You are not allowed to do that.”

It can also be effective to respond to a bully’s insult with questions such as “Pardon me?, “What is your point?” or “Is that the best you’ve got?”

Doing so sidesteps the attack and takes the control away from the bully.

Curry says you should not expect a bully to change who he or she is. You are the one who must change by not playing that person’s game.

As a legal office administrator, you may not be a victim of bullying yourself, but you may well have someone you oversee come to you with a complaint of being bullied by another employee.

If an employee is telling you someone else is bullying (him or her), at least listen, says Curry. If you believe what the employee is saying you should probably confront the bully and tell him or her that the situation is not acceptable and cannot continue without severe consequences.

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