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The Workplace Bully: Adopt a Sumo Wrestler’s Tactics to Battle Back

Doing battle with a workplace bully is a little like sumo wrestling. Sumo wrestlers try to force each other out of a ring either by using superior strength or catching their opponent off guard. When a target confronts a workplace bully, they shouldn’t use physical strength. But they can disarm a bully that is using intimidation—the bully’s strongest weapon—by adopting a positive mindset.

Nothing puzzles a workplace bully more than a positive attitude on the part of his target. The bully is looking for a reaction. Imagine what happens when the target doesn’t react.

Therefore, your challenge in taking on the workplace bully is to act consistently positive.

Your task is to react to every “blow” with a sense of detachment.

Let’s look at the experience of a typical target when she took this advice:

Charlene was the new team leader for a manufacturing company. She had to learn about the company’s products quickly, and she was up to the task.

Nancy, a peer and team member, however, displayed little confidence in Charlene. She verbally attacked Charlene, and criticized her leadership. She even sabotaged a sales campaign that was instituted shortly after the team came together.

When Charlene looked at her team during one Monday morning meeting, she saw she was losing them.

She knew it was time to take on the workplace bully.

The weekend before Charlene put her plan into action, she set aside some time for an “attitude adjustment.” She did things she liked to do. She took her children to the park on Saturday and took a long run that afternoon. She and her husband got a baby sitter and went out to a movie on Sunday night. Every time she thought of Nancy, she told herself she was enjoying himself now and would deal with Nancy on Monday morning.

Monday morning came and with it, the meeting that always started the week. This morning, however, was different.

  • When Nancy arrived late, Charlene made a mental note to talk to her later. Nancy frequently arrived after meetings had begun, and Charlene told her privately after the team meeting that this behavior wasn’t acceptable. Nancy looked surprised, grumbled and walked away.
  • When Charlene handed out a strategy already agreed to by the team, Nancy sighed loudly and said under her breath, “This will never work.” Charlene countered with, “I’m sorry, Nancy. I couldn’t hear you.” Nancy didn’t repeat her complaint.
  • When Nancy interrupted with a foolish question, Charlene answered her with a brief, concise statement and went back to what she was saying without missing a beat.

Throughout the meeting, Charlene held the upper hand.

Nancy saw she couldn’t shake her. Charlene maintained a relaxed posture and always responded positively. She didn’t show Nancy any enthusiasm, but she wasn’t rude either.

This wasn’t the end of Nancy’s bullying ways, however. Two days later Nancy came in swinging again. Charlene persisted. She continued to respond in a positive manner as:

  • She gave Nancy direction and feedback clearly, honestly and in short, simple sentences. Bullies often take advantage of rambling explanations to act puzzled or ask questions on insignificant points.
  • She used humor to make light of Nancy’s attacks. Even when Nancy was vicious, Charlene responded as if she were quietly amused instead of offended.
  • She asked Nancy questions, like, “What is it about making an in-person call that you don’t understand?” or repeated her statement instead of trying to convince Nancy by explaining.

Most importantly, Charlene maintained her positive approach. Her face and body looked relaxed. Nancy and others saw it. Little by little, Nancy bullied less often. She never became an ally; occasionally, she still went on the attack.

But Charlene remained true to her mission. Like the victorious sumo wrestler, her opponent could not force her out of the ring. Charlene had learned the advantages of a positive approach to disarm her workplace bully.

Valerie Cade, Founder
Bully Free at Work