ITB 2024 Special Reporting
How to handle Bullies at Work.
By Rhoberta Shaler, PhD
Tuesday, 30th January 2007
He's a bully! It sounds like something heard on a school playground or attached to gang behavior - Unfortunately it is an all too common complaint in the workplace.

When I am hired by a company the task often entails managing the bully, the hostile, aggressive person who is running as rampant as a rhino.  Recently, I met one who introduced herself to me in the initial interview as "a harsh personality who can be hard on people." My ears perked up and my jaw likely dropped open at that moment. No, not from the self-knowledge this woman displayed, but rather from the admission of her awareness and her complete lack of interest in doing anything to improve her approach. She was proud of her bully status!  

I wondered, too,  if she thought that announcing that she was a bully was a way of giving herself permission to act like one. If you walk around thinking of yourself as a harsh personality, you're very likely to demonstrate it on a regular basis. And, she did.

This woman—let's call her Leslie—had a few traits you might recognize. The first day I was in the company she stalked up to my desk, maintaining eye contact all the way, and demanded:

"What are you going to do about reconfiguring the office?"  When I responded that it was under consideration and would be happening soon but not that day, she asked once again. Receiving the same answer, she rolled her eyes and walked away. Over a few weeks of seeing Leslie roll her eyes, dismiss people with a wave of her hand, hear her backbiting sarcasm and know-it-all responses, and watching her hostile, aggressive behavior and its effect on the office, there was no possibility that the behavior could go unchecked. It was toxic to the productivity and health of everyone as well as to the profitability of the company.

A problem arose. The owner of the company did not want to fire her because she brought a unique combination of experience and expertise to the company. A classic dilemma in small companies!  It is all too frequent that a person with no regard for either co-workers or the company holds too much information and the boss thinks of them as indispensable….while holding everyone else hostage. Big mistake!

Consider how much time and energy is lost in this company as this rhino charges and bullies her way through the day. People would take a sick day when they had had enough of her overbearing nastiness. There is only so much folks can take. Productivity suffered. Clients were lost. The costs of keeping such an individual employed are too high.

Listening to her with customers, it was not a surprise to learn that what the owner thought of as her hard-nosed negotiating was simply bullying. There is a difference.


A bully is a person who is habitually cruel to others she deems to be weaker than herself and uses browbeating language and behavior. Although we often think of bullies as big people dominating smaller folks, they are truly little people in every way.

  • Their fear of being wrong is demonstrated by being know-it-alls. They are often condescending, patronizing or dismissive.
  • Their fear of not being able to meet the needs of others causes them to never want to hear what others think, feel or want. 
  • Their inability and unwillingness to control their anger or their tongue causes them to make everything your fault as it could not possibly be theirs.
  • Paradoxically, their self-esteem is too fragile to handle the possibility of being wrong.
  • Their need to control you demonstrates their fear of being unable to control themselves.
  • Their desire for power over others comes from the fear of being insignificant.
  • Their attempt to boost their own flailing self-esteem is fed by treating others disrespectfully, thoughtlessly and off-handedly.
  • Their fear of others causes them to assault character, focus on weaknesses and be the poster children for intimidation.
Unfortunately, these are all manifestations of a poor self-image coupled with lack of self-awareness and people skills.


A good beginning when handling a bully is to begin with compassion. The last thing you may be considering is a compassionate approach. You truly want to beat him or her over the head with a blunt object and considerable force! Beginning with an understanding of the inherent weakness the bully is projecting and its likely causes will help you manage.
Bullies need to be managed because they cannot manage themselves, yet, everyone shies away from doing so. They are like errant teenagers allowed to run wild. No one wants to say no to them because of the consequences. That's the operating system of the bully: don't cross me or I will make your life miserable. They are miserable and they want to take everyone down with them.

Bullies appear self-confident, strong and impervious because they intimidate weaker people. They may even be so blind in their arrogance that they try to intimidate anyone as Leslie did with me. (That was not a wise move, Leslie.) If you vacillate, placate or submit to a bully or respond with fear or rage, she feels her point is proven: you are inferior and deserve to be abused, taken down or written off.

You have three choices when working with a bully: quit, get sick or manage yourself with the bully. Here are some tips: 
  • Redeem your self-esteem and establish strong boundaries. That is the only way to gain the respect of a bully.
  • Be friendly, self-confident and calm. Never cower!
  • Avoid a clash of wills. Keep things at the information, not the emotional, level.
  • Listen well. Agree with him or her…in part…and put forward your views clearly.
  • Be strong, firm, courteous and assertive.
  • Endeavor to get the bully to consider alternative views while avoiding directly challenging him or her.
  • Be well-prepared before you talk with a bully. Know your desired outcome of the conversation and stay focused.
  • Be willing to acknowledge when s/he is right. A bully respects your ability to see his/her strengths.

Step up, show up and speak up. Leslie's direct manager was afraid of inciting Leslie's wrath. She spent her time trying to make Leslie happy. That is an impossibility. No matter what you give a bully, they want more. Why? Because what they want is to be stopped. It sounds paradoxical, doesn't it? It is, however, true. The bully cannot stop his or her own behavior because it is being driven by deep fear. Often, only a resounding wake-up call from management has any hope of bringing about change.

One major tool a bully uses is making threats. Management has more clout than bullies; therefore, they have a bigger threat: dismissal. I have had managers tell me that they are afraid of firing a bully because s/he will likely cause problems, even sue. Yes, it could happen but that is something you have to be willing to risk if all other interventions fail.  There are many other people in your company who are suffering from the bully's behavior. They count more than one bully!

As a manager, you must ask yourself how much it is reasonable to invest in time, energy, resources, interventions, training, mediations, etc. before risking the threats of a bully about to be fired? Be pro-active and act as soon as you see bullying behaviors are frequent or habitual. Hopefully, that is unacceptable in your corporate culture.

Anger, threats, harassment, humiliation and ridicule are the tools of the workplace bully, just as they are on the playground. Leslie majored in all four. Her delight was in her ability to intimidate. Her joy was in having those around her dread the possibility she would erupt. She felt powerful and, unfortunately, no one was contradicting her.

If you have a Leslie on your team, be assertive. If you need to shore up your conflict and anger management skills, do so. The workplace is no place for a bully. The cost is too high.

©  Rhoberta Shaler, PhD

Dr. Rhoberta Shaler is an integration catalyst helping businesses prosper and people flourish. She will lead you to optimize the life of your enterprise and the enterprise of your life. A ‘people skills' expert—a noted speaker, author, consultant and coach—and founder of the Optimize! Institute in Escondido, CA, Dr. Shaler works with organizations that know their people are their top resource and with leaders who know that building relationships is a top priority. She is the author of Wrestling Rhinos: Conquering Conflict in the Wilds of Work as well as more than a dozen books and audio programs. Introduce yourself well with her free ebook at www.Effective-Elevator-Speech.com  Learn more about her work and subscribe to The Rhino Wrestler at  www.OptimizeInstitute.com 
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