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Over the course of the last month, I had the pleasure of working with a few people who needed help with understanding what was being communicated to them and responding back to achieve what they wanted. I dedicate this article to a mid-level executive and a remarkable woman (let’s call her ‘Sarah’), who was being constantly picked on at work by her female boss. Keeping in line with the theme of this month – What to say and do, when you don’t know what to say and do – this is how to deal with the influential bully at work!
It had been 5 years since Sarah had worked as a full-time professional at any office. When she became a mother to a baby boy, she decided to take a break to raise her son. Sometime between those 5 years, Sarah and her husband decided to move to another country on account of him being offered an exciting new job opportunity. According to Sarah, it wasn’t an easy decision for them to make the move, but they decided to go forward at the prospect of more rewarding and beneficial future.
After a while, Sarah felt ready to go back to work. She interviewed with a few companies, faced rejections until she found one who wanted to hire her. The last round was held by the aforementioned (bully) boss, let’s call her ‘Sylvia’. Sarah saw the early warning signs during the interview, but she dismissed them as Sylvia’s way of testing her resilience and her ability to handle stress. Not allowing Sylvia to get the better of her, Sarah kept her cool and took it sportingly. A few days later she got a call from the HR, and a few minutes later she was calling her husband, ecstatically telling him that she got the job!
And then it began..
For the last two months, from the day she started work, Sylvia made it a point to single her out and pick on her in front of her peers. Being new and away from work for so long, Sarah had the task of catching up with work from where she had left off 5 years ago. Making it easy for Syliva to take verbal jabs at her, by commenting about her work, criticize her decision on taking a break for 5 years, question her determination and capability to keep up with the demands of the job, etc. At first, Sarah tried to take it positively, justifying Sylvia’s actions as her way of encouraging Sarah to bring out the best in her. Not the type to give up Sarah worked hard to gain the approval of her boss.
Who are bullies?
People who use their authority, influence, skills or resources to diminish others or put them down in order to keep them under their ‘control’ and ‘approval’.
Why do they do this?
Bullies are bullies because they are extremely insecure about themselves to the point where they are constantly acting in fear. Their insecurity stems from the belief that they are unworthy of love, affection, and appreciation.
Sylvia’s Response to Sarah’s Hard-Work
But it only seemed to annoy her even more and she started making things even more difficult for Sarah. She couldn’t understand why her boss was behaving this way. Yes, she was hard on everyone, but she was particularly hard on her. And yes, Sylvia was quite clever with how she picked on people. She made it about their work, she would talk about her achievements and success and comment saying things like ‘You are so far behind, I don’t think you can make it’.
Sarah thought about talking to her boss, but some of her colleagues had warned her that she may retaliate in a ‘different’ way. She thought about speaking with the HR, but Sylvia wielded a lot of power and influence in the office. Sarah doubted any complaints or allegations would actually have any effect on Sylvia. Finally, out of options, tired and frustrated, Sarah thought about quitting a job and a company that she liked rather than continue to work with a ‘sociopath’.
Deep down every bully sees himself/herself as a ‘worthless’ or a ‘useless’ individual. This feeling is the result of some kind of personal trauma that took place in their past, which they have never been able to overcome.
Which brings us to their two biggest fears, or the two reasons why they bully people
- Afraid of another person finding out what they secretly believe and resent about themselves. For this reason, bullies find it difficult to trust people and form genuine relationships. They will be dismissive and disrespectful to everyone around them, to create enough doubt to get others to approach them for their ‘validation’ (thereby allowing the bully to establish control over them).
- Coming across a person who is actually better than them which causes them to feel threatened and act out in ‘contempt’ over their success and achievements, to achieve the same goal as mentioned in above paragraph.
It’s easy for some to misunderstand these actions as a show of strength and confidence. They say and do things that others find difficult to do which garners respect, allowing them to establish influence over others. But make no mistake, these actions are a plea for attention and adulation, resulting from a deep sense of insecurity. To know the difference, one only has to look at how supportive he/she is of others or their ideas.
How Sarah Handled Sylvia
Sarah believed that Sylvia’s behavior towards her was because of something she did. She needed clarity and understanding on that matter before anything else. Once I was able to help her with that I asked her if she really wanted to work at the same organization, at the same job, with the same boss. Sarah considered her options again. She told me she was sure she wanted to work at the same job and at the same company and one person was not going to scare her away. And that mindset was all Sarah needed.
Syliva was looking for control! So, we decided to give it to her. Or at least the illusion of it. For close to 10 days, every day, Sarah made it a point to ‘go to her boss for help’ (even if she didn’t need it).
Now for the first few days, it didn’t make a lot of difference. Sylvia was Sylvia and she was still dismissive and disrespectful as ever. But after a while, Sylvia took notice of Sarah, as she tried to ‘involve’ her boss in her work. She also shared ideas and asked for Sylvia’s opinion.
The more you get involved with a person, the more you start caring about him/her.
Sarah used that same strategy and eventually won over her boss. For you see, Syliva’s cynicism and reticence was a defense mechanism to keep people at bay and in control. She was really looking for was a friend, someone she could trust, and Sarah was able to do that.
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Originally published at Linkedin