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When a friend asked me to write about workplace bullying, I remembered the first time I was bullied by a senior manager. She told me I was doing a great job but needed to learn how to “kiss her a#$” (her words) for a promotion. Her boldness took me off guard and I blurted, “that aint NEVER going to happen!” My response ignited a one-year battle of wills over boundaries.

For most of us, defining boundaries is an ongoing, complex journey that typically starts in childhood. I was eight when bullied by teenagers while walking home from school with my cousin. We ignored them using the ‘sticks and stones’ mantra until one day, one of them pushed me in the street. Since we were outnumbered and outsized, I decided to tell my big brother but my grandmother saw me first and asked what was wrong. I told her.

My grandmother immediately asked where they lived and went to their house, introduced herself and stated why she was there. The bullies denied everything and she calmly told them “lie or truth, you or not you, these two are off-limits, so do not speak to or touch us again and tell your friends.” She didn’t state a consequence; she just set the boundary and the bullying ended. This was my bullying defining moment because I knew when my butt hit that concrete, I needed help beyond me and, fortunately, my grandmother was fearless.

I was also fearless when battling my first bullying manager; I wasn’t going to be intimidated and she was equally determined to break me. I was wholly engaged in the fight until a peer said it was creating a hostile environment and I needed to go to Human Resources (HR). The HR manager said in a meandering, emphatic way that senior management “is what it is at that level” and since my performance wasn’t suffering, I was handling it. End result from HR: If I was on fire and needed water, I would have been ashes.

But instead of burning, I emailed my documentation to a senior executive who sent it to the HR executive who addressed it with the bully and the HR managers. The senior executive and I met and discussed the art of office politics, as well as my confrontational skills and value to the company. He encouraged me to consider another management position, but I realized that on some twisted level, the battle of wills was an unconscious distraction from the fact that I no longer found the job challenging. His responsiveness was appreciated, but I started a job search and accepted an offer six weeks later.

Bullying became pervasive as I continued to climb the corporate ladder. In most cases, it was rolling downhill from C-Suite positions. Through these trials, my boundaries remained intact, but I improved my confrontation skills by being assertive and not antagonistic. Generally, the bullies backed off immediately—and when they didn’t, I escalated it.

Most bullies are scared of confrontation, which is why they typically hide behind their position or size for intimidation. Simply put, they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work. It’s like a fix and, like any other addict, they crave the high. Workplace bullying is a multi-level permission fix requiring weakening consent. Bullies deflect their weaknesses with superficial strength by exploiting working relationships, the bullied person struggles with setting and maintaining boundaries, and the companies allows it when they fail to implement a standard conduct policy for employees, regardless of position or expertise.

Sometimes bullying is stuck at the victims’ level because they are afraid to report it, which is the key reason a bully needs an agreeable target…sometimes it works for them:

  • In a company meeting, a senior manager’s boss screamed she was an idiot for taking notes while she was speaking. The boss was using the F-bomb at the manager in front of her subordinates and peers, and the manager visually cowered and remained silent. After the meeting, coworkers told the manager that she took the high road, but to me it looked like road kill because it was painful to watch.

And sometimes…not so much:

  • One coworker expressed indifference to a boss’ attempted bullying by saying, “I was eating when I accepted this job and I’ll be eating when I leave─either from home or from the jail cell they throw me in for assaulting you.” The boss looked startled, walked away and the bullying ceased.

No one can determine your limits or set your boundaries better than you. That’s why the first line of defense is always you—stand up for yourself first and, if you don’t have the strength, seek help. If the help isn’t helpful, seek additional help or find an exit. It’s not easy to stand up, but neither is constant humiliation. Martin Luther King said it best with “A man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.”

Written by: Gwendolyn M. Ward, Principal at FOOW?

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