At some point during your career, you probably will encounter a workplace bully. This person may be malicious, passive aggressive, manipulative, or all the above. As adults, the interpersonal relationships with workplace bullies can be complicated. Especially if your livelihood is at stake.
To protect yourself, you must identify the bullies in your workplace and develop effective, yet professional strategies on how to work with them. The best way to do this is to respond with emotional intelligence.
What Is emotional intelligence?
In today’s corporate world, you have probably heard the term ‘emotional intelligence‘. It may have been uttered in a HR workshop or perhaps a team meeting.
Emotional intelligence is the capacity of individuals to recognize their own and other people’s emotions. It is the ability to differentiate between a variety of feelings and label them appropriately. We use emotional information, or cues, to guide our thinking and behavior.
Our feelings can be labelled by degrees of intensity. Imagine you go into the lunchroom and notice your sandwich is missing from the staff refrigerator?
Ask yourself, “What am I feeling in this moment?” Are you frustrated (low intensity)? What about exasperated (medium intensity)? Depending on how your day is going, you might even feel infuriated (high intensity).
Another way of looking at it is: do I just feel angry, or do I feel like I want to punch someone? The actions that hypothetically accompany your feelings can give you a clue to their intensity.
Let’s say you had a long day at work. When you arrive at your home, you find your partner cooked your favorite meal and is happily waiting for you. You are feeling happy, maybe even grateful. Therefore, are you feeling pleased (low intensity)? What about joyful (medium intensity)? Or you might even feel exuberant (high intensity).
To better identify the feeling, let’s look at the hypothetical actions. Are you just smiling? Do you want to hug your partner? Do you want to dance around the room and break out champagne?
This self-awareness is built upon the ability to recognize your own emotions and intensity they carry. This creates a greater understanding of yourself and your situation, which you can apply to others.
Emotional intelligence and workplace bullies
Workplace bullies may lack emotional intelligence because they are very self-centered and not focused on others. A bully probably has a keen sense of his or her own feelings and motivations, but has a huge blind spot when it comes to others.
The first thing you can do is not take the behavior personally. When someone tells you that you are doing a poor job, or questions your competence in a public manner, it can be very difficult not to internalize the message.
Workplace bullies act out of their own ego and mindset. Instead of taking their criticism and antics to heart, remind yourself that you are only responsible for your own feelings and behaviors. You are not able to change the feelings or behaviors of others. Therefore, whatever your workplace bully may be feeling is completely out of your control.
Pause before reacting to the situation at hand. It can be easy to react to emotional stimuli, especially if it is negative. When confronted with aggression, dominance, snark, or outright rude behavior from your workplace bully, take a moment to identify the emotion you are feeling.
This brief reflection will help you pause in the moment and respond (if a response is necessary) instead of reacting based on your immediate emotion.
Consider the bully’s perspective, even if you have strong negative feelings about them. You’ve heard the phrase “walk a mile in my shoes,” when you are feeling defeated, threatened, or simply agitated by a workplace bully, challenge yourself to tap into empathy.
Time to analyze
Can you pinpoint why they may act the way they do? Are there any hints or clues you can gather to help you see the world through their eyes?
Maybe their boss treats them in a similar manner. Maybe the behavior is out of jealousy. Trying to see the other side, no matter how difficult, can be a very powerful tool.
Timely, direct, and constructive feedback may help the bully develop his or her emotional intelligence.
Many of us were taught to ignore bullies when we were younger. But as an adult, this is nearly impossible. Instead of ignoring your workplace bully, make a list of a few characteristics that make them a bully.
See if you can suggest behaviors or an awareness for each one, as if you were giving the bully advice. Then, agree to meet in a neutral space, when the workplace bully appears receptive to feedback, and share your thoughts. Be sure to avoid generalizations, and use specific and timely examples.
Sometimes bullies act out because they feel a lack of attention or appreciation. Before you tack onto the list of negative qualities the workplace bully may have, consider a list of strengths as well.
Are there any opportunities you can genuinely compliment the workplace bully on a specific strength? This may help diffuse some of the insecurities the bully has and help increase confidence and collaboration within the work setting.
Maintain key awareness of your own behavior and request honest feedback when appropriate. The last thing you wish to do is to become a workplace bully yourself. It is possible to take on this role without realizing how your emotions and behaviors are contributing to a toxic work environment.
A workplace bully does not need to bring you down. Most of the time, the bully’s issue is with themselves and their ego. They feel triggered in some way and act on those emotions. Awareness of workplace bullies is essential in maintaining positive and collaborative work environments.
Remember, even when it feels tough, the best thing you can do is respond instead of react, channel your empathy, and determine the most proactive way to address the bullying behavior.
The new normal
With millions of people returning to work in the office, avoiding workplace bullies is nearly impossible. Those who could hide their behaviors behind the phone or screen are now putting those behaviors on face-to-face display once more.
Workplace bullies are flawed humans, just like the rest of us. By leaning on emotional intelligence, you can develop strategies create a harmonious workplace.