Over a third of workers have experienced bullying or harassment at their jobs, according to studies by Gary and Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute. If you include another 12 percent of workers who have witnessed bullying, almost half of workers are affected by emotional abuse at work. In their book, The Bully at Work, the Namies describe a hard-headed strategy that is necessary to protect yourself from a workplace bully and overcome the damaging and costly influence of emotional tyrants in our places of employment.
Below I have paraphrased their three-step strategy:
- Recognize what is happening to you, both the emotional impact and the power structure that permits it.
- Assume responsibility for protecting yourself by taking time off, looking for safe places to land, and finding reliable support.
- Only then, seek to expose the bullying through a careful strategic plan that takes into account the dynamics of your workplace.
The first step in this strategy must be to recognize and cope with your own emotional responses to the bullying so that you can think and act strategically rather than from an instinctual or gut reaction. Emotions normally compel us to act in ways that are most consistent with survival in a basic sense. But in the case of bullying, the emotions most likely to be stimulated are fear, shame, and anger. Fear and shame can paralyze us or inhibit us from acting effectively to protect ourselves, and too much anger can backfire in the workplace environment.
So knowing how to manage your emotional response is essential to executing the complex strategic plan outlined in The Bully at Work. Because these powerful emotions not only influence your actions, but also your perceptions of your situation, it is difficult to analyze your own options with confidence. The impact of fear and shame may provoke you to hide and isolate, or to be paralyzed and do nothing. The hopelessness of the situation may be magnified. And the personal emotional damage to individuals who are subjected to bullying at work often results from extended exposure to the traumatizing impact of fear, shame, and anger that cannot be effectively expressed.
One important resource in fighting bullying is to have one or more allies. Someone who will stand with you and validate your strategy can reduce feelings of confusion, paralysis and hopelessness. But as the Namies point out, it can be difficult to find an effective ally in a work environment in which a bully has established a power base. And a friend or spouse who sympathizes may not fully understand the risks you are facing and might encourage risky responses out of empathic anger. There may even be dangers to a relationship if you feel you are dependent on another to protect you.
Human resource departments have conflicting allegiances that can inhibit them from supporting you in ways that you might expect, and employee assistance counselors with limits on the number of sessions allowed may also be challenged in fully understanding and meeting the complexities of a bullying situation.
Coaches are now available who can work face to face or by telephone or skype to provide strategic and emotional support. If you think a coach would be helpful to you, be sure to choose one who is fully aware of the emotional dynamics of bullying and the special issues of bullying in the workplace.
Just as bullies are detrimental to the self-esteem and performance of young children, being bullied at work will hinder your confidence and productivity — and no one deserves to deal with that. Stand up for your self and your rights by drawing from your own self-confidence and the resources around you.