How to Handle a Professional Bully

This is for all the young professionals in the house.

I remember the first time I was screamed at by a professional authority figure. A board member, in fact.

Years have passed, and I still draw on the experience when working with young professionals in tricky spots.

The tirade was over the placement of a bookshelf. Clearly not about me. It was my first day on the job, and the contested bookshelf relocation had been authorized by my boss, the executive director.

The board member and I hadn’t even been introduced yet.

Already, reporting relationships and professional decorum meant nothing. And already, this board member was literally cursing her way into my life.

So began three years of a mostly joyous directorship, colored by acute bouts of misery, as this same board member bulldozed everyone in sight.

It was also where I learned one of my most valuable lessons as a young professional, foremost being how to diffuse a bad situation before it escalates.

It’s surprisingly simple. 

No one told me that the offender expects his or her victim to do one of two things: acquiesce or fight. I’m not much for giving in, so I fought.

The problem with fighting is that you have steel hitting steel. And that’s when things start to break.

But that’s when I decided on a third reaction.

Ask a question. Or pose a neutral statement.

About a year into this caustic relationship, I realized that my resistance only intensified each episode. So I began saying, “That’s an interesting idea, tell me more.” Or, “I originally thought X, but hadn’t considered Y. Tell me more.”

Notice that it’s not entirely a question. More an interest. Real or not. If I said, “Why do you think that?” it was bound to get stormy.

Immediately – and I mean on my first attempt at this new technique – the bully’s venom passed through me. Not only losing its grip on my emotions, but also taking the wind out of the deliverer’s sails.

To be clear, I’m not talking about a passionate disagreement with a colleague. That can actually be productive. I’m talking about people who might be certifiable in one form or another. Being victimized by an unreasonable authority figure.

Consider asking questions or posing neutral statements to de-escalate, mitigate, and possibly eliminate a professional bully’s impact.

My other takeaway from that experience in my life was that birds of a feather really do flock together, so I chose another flock and have looked back only in gratitude for the lesson. Today, in the middle of my career, I see things more clearly. Handle things differently. End potentially caustic relationships early.

Have you ever been hit by intense workplace conflict? How did you deal with it?

Until next time!

Jared Redick
Visit: The Resume
Follow: @TheResumeStudio
Call: 415-397-6640

One Response

  1. I have.
    I quit.
    My sanity & self respect was worth more than any job.

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