Turning the Tables on Workplace Bullies

After Anne landed what she thought was a dream job, she quickly bonded with a charismatic co-worker, Karla. When Karla poured wine liberally at an informal dinner at her house and said, “Tell me all about you,” Anne did.

Others snickered as Anne walked into the breakroom the next day. That night, when she logged on to Facebook, she saw her co-workers had posted stories about her based on what she’d revealed to Karla. Karla had set her up and trashed her.

Nearly twenty percent of U.S. workers experience bullying in the workplace, and another nineteen percent of us witness it.

Bullying, defined as psychological violence in the form of verbal bullying (ridiculing, insulting, name-calling or slandering), physical bullying (pushing, shoving, kicking or tripping), or situational bullying (sabotage or deliberate humiliation), wounds you whether you’re the target or a witness.

If you’re a bully’s target, it’s helpful to learn what kind of bully you’re dealing with. There’s the Aggressive Jerk, like Bernard, who stomps through the workplace threatening “blood in the water” as he ridicules and insults those in his way. There’s the harder-to-identify Shape-shifter, a workplace Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde who cons the boss into thinking he is the victim, even while sabotaging other employees. If you’ve run across the Scorched Earth Fighter, you’ve learned it’s not enough for him to win—he wants you to lose.

Each bully takes a different strategy to defeat. For example, the Narcissist bully, who expects the world to revolve around him, can’t take criticism. If you out this bully to senior management, his vicious counter-attack may prove his undoing.

In Beating the Workplace Bully, I outline how to tackle and outsmart each bully type, starting with centering yourself so bullies can’t foot-sweep you into reacting, and progressing into turning the table on bullies.

Bullies operate according to a risk/benefit ratio. Up the negative consequences against the bully, and you may witness both a failed bullying attempt and a rapid retreat.

My favorite turn the tables’ strategy–ask the bully a question. Consider what happens if a bully verbally puts you down and you respond with a question. You’ve taken control of the encounter, particularly if the bully answers your question.

Suppose a bully knows you’re sensitive about your appearance, and says to you, “You get any sleep last night? You look like a dog.” You might redden and tighten your jaw in response to this snarky comment. If others are watching, they may pity you. What if you instead ask, “What breed?”

By asking a question, you sidestep the attack and take control of the conversation. If your bully confronts you in front of an audience, they then laugh with and not at you.

Or go for a subtle knockout punch. The bully points to a project you’ve labored on and says, “This is a pile of crap.” You respond, “Pardon me?” and the bully asks, “What, you have a problem with your hearing?” You calmly respond, “No.”

Game over. Bullies test to see if you’re prey. Fail the test.

© 2020, Lynne Curry

Lynne Curry is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016, https://amzn.to/30V5JO6) and “Solutions”, https://amzn.to/2GYlnAN (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com). Send your questions to her at lynnewriter10@gmail.com or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.

6 thoughts on “Turning the Tables on Workplace Bullies

  1. So true about responding to a bully’s verbal abuse. If you can be prepared with a comeback that puts the bully on the defensive, he/she may be less likely to attack again.

  2. Lynne, I really value your insights and your recommended comebacks to the workplace bully. Your work shows courage and wisdom, in one alloy! Thanks again for these comments for all of us.

    1. Suz, thanks! I loved writing Beating the Workplace Bully (though I titled it “Outsmarting the Workplace Bully) and am loving the chance to continue helping individuals targeted or those who witness it. Hope things turn around in the North Dakota:)

  3. The bully is a table switcher who decided to sit in “ my spot “. I plan to reoccupy soon. Who is wrong?

    1. I don’t enough to know if either of you is wrong. What made it “your” spot? And will you simply, “I was sitting there” or escalate?

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