The Unconventional Bully

There’s workplace conflict resolution training coming up for my team and we’ve been asked to think about the question, “What does bullying look like to us?“, as pre-course preparation.

Instantly, when I think of a bully I think of the stereotype of a tall man with broad shoulders and a booming voice. Someone who stands over others, both physically and figuratively, speaking loudly and without kindness or niceties. Maybe he subtly undermines others, or outwardly take ownership of their ideas? Perhaps he ‘accidentally’ leaves them off the team meeting invite, or ‘forgets’ to include particular people on an important email? I searched for an image of a bully for this post and the first one to pop up was this one…

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Over coffee with a friend last week, I asked if there was bullying in his workplace and he agreed, quickly stating, “She’s a nightmare“. Hang on a minute, what was that again??

Going on to describe the situation further, it turns out the workplace bully in his office is a rather short, woman in a middle management position, on her way towards retirement after 25 years in the organisation. Her communication isn’t loud, it’s quiet and often behind your back. She rarely stands when speaking, and tends to strike with a passing barb when you’re in the kitchen or on your way to the loo. It feels off-the-cuff and unplanned, but is regular and consistent in its impact.

Interestingly, when I searched for an image of an woman as a bully there were only images of young women or teenagers. All of those images, bar one or two, showed the woman bullying another woman. None of the pictures looked anything like the woman my friend described, although I did find a picture of a man being bullied by a pair of velociraptors. Seems Google thinks you’re more likely to get bullied by dinosaurs than a small, older lady. 🙂

Delving deeper into the conversation with my friend, I asked what was being done about the situation at his workplace. Turns out, the bully is targeting multiple people, but not all of the workers. Some people are singled out, others are the topic of ongoing negative comments when they are not present. But when I asked about documenting the behaviour, the discussion turned to how the complaint would be perceived by others, especially the Team Leader. Would anyone believe it was happening? How would it be seen if a man accused a smaller, older woman of bullying? I’d like to think I’d react immediately without bias or judgement but honestly, my gut reaction was to question it, simply because it went against my assumption of what bullying looks like.

We know that bullying is about power, and bullies target those who they perceive to be a threat to them. Power doesn’t have to be from conventional ‘strength’, it can come from manipulation and coercion. It isn’t always related physical size and authority, but can be stealth and understated too. If this is the case, it may feel harder for people to speak up about what is happening to them.

So how can you deal with the ‘unconventional bully’ in your team when people are holding back from speaking up?

Here are four values that I recommend focusing on:

  1. Alter the environment in which the bullying is happening. Work on your broader team culture and build a stronger environment encouraging collaboration and communication. Shine a spotlight on the darker corners of the office by increasing team meetings about projects and minimising opportunities for 1:1 interactions of staff where behaviour may not be positive. Your aim here is to increase open, honest communication. The value you’re building on here is TRUST.
  2. Model the behaviour you want to see in others. If the bully, or another person, is making a comment which is borderline inappropriate, take the moment and address it. Don’t let it slide. Yes, it may be easier to let it go through to the keeper, but your team will feel more confident in standing up to poor behaviour themselves if you do it first. The value you’re building on here is CONSISTENCY.
  3. Act with purpose. Often, people will come to you to complain about a person or situation, but then ask you not to act on it. “I don’t want you to do anything but…“. The problem is they feel unburdened by telling you about the problem, but there is no answerability to provide evidence to support their accusation or accountability to resolve it. Telling a leader about poor behaviour should have an expectation to support the resolution of the issue. Stand firm and state if a team member wants to ‘off load’ to you about a person or problem, they need to be prepared that you will take action. If they don’t want you to take action, they need to assess just how much of a problem there is in the first place. The value you’re building on here is ACCOUNTABILITY.
  4. In team meetings, make a point to ask multiple people to contribute to ideas and problem solving, even if they aren’t directly related to the topic/subject. For example, if there’s a distribution issue in the warehouse, ask the training officer his/her thoughts. If a customer service problem has arisen at the front desk, why not ask the finance officer what they think? Looking for solutions beyond the standard or usual will encourage people to think outside of their ‘silo’ or ‘stream’. You just find the perfect solution from an objective source. Sometimes we can be too close to a subject of work, or only go to the same people for advice. This produces the same or similar outcomes each time. Bringing fresh eyes to a situation can help break poor behaviour that’s been accepted as the ‘norm’ because new people are looking at it, judging it. The value you’re building on here is OPENMINDEDNESS.

Start small, and with your own approach and watch to see how others, including the unconventional bully, respond. And remember, this is a long-term strategy to shift the broader team culture.

Looking for a faster approach? The next time someone comes to vent or offload about someone, encourage and support the team member, whoever they are, to lodge a statement with your Professional Standards Unit. This will ensure the bullying can be formally investigated and dealt with appropriately by the organisation.

Good Luck.

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