Never Tolerate Workplace Bullies

OFFICE RAGE is on the rise. In increasingly high-stress workplaces with heavy workloads, long hours, tight resources, exhausted and angry co-workers and demanding customers, more people are losing it and behaving badly. One New York City survey found that 42 percent of respondents admitted there was yelling and verbal abuse in their workplace; 23 percent said they had been “driven to tears.”

Granted, we’re human and from time to time we lose control of our emotions, but there are no excuses when it comes to bullying behavior and abuse.

Sadly, 49 percent of American workers report having been affected by workplace bullying, either as a target themselves or having witnessed abusive behavior against a co-worker, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2007 survey. The cost is high: Victims suffer mental and physical effects and companies pay in high turnover, litigation costs, low morale and workers compensation.

As defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating and/or intimidating, or work interference (sabotage) which prevents work from getting done.” The key words: repeated, health-harming mistreatment.

Workplace bullies should never be tolerated. There are laws protecting workers from intimidation or from a hostile or offensive work environment. Workplace bullying often involves abuse or misuse of power (the vast majority of bullies are bosses), often creating a feeling of helplessness in victims.

Just because a boss is tough or has high performance expectations doesn’t make him or her a bully. Bullies, by definition, are abusive.

Examples include:

  • Falsely accusing and punishing for “errors” not actually made.
  • Being treated differently than the rest of your work group.
  • Public humiliation.
  • Demonstration of hostility, which can include nonverbal intimidation (glaring, clenched fists and threatening posture).
  • Exhibited uncontrollable mood swings in front of the group.
  • Demeaning comments.

If you’re a victim of workplace bullying:

Recognize bullying for what it is and get help. Document incidents, dates and what was said or done. When someone is intimidating or abusing you, leave the situation immediately, then go to human resources. If HR doesn’t take immediate action and resolve the issue, contact your employee assistance program or talk with an attorney. Leave if you don’t feel safe.

If you’re the problem:

Get help. Anger management therapy or a coach specializing in emotional intelligence can help you gain insight into what triggers your bad behavior and learn new ways of coping in stressful workplace situations.

Recognize your own signs of an impending emotional hijack. These may include a sudden rapid heart rate, sweaty palms or shallow breathing (or the urge to throw something or hit someone). Once you are emotionally reactive and flooding occurs with cortisol and adrenaline coursing through your body, it’s almost impossible to resolve a problem or conflict rationally. The best thing to do is remove yourself from the situation. Leave the office and don’t return until you have calmed down.

What companies should do:

It’s the responsibility of senior leaders to create a safe and healthy work environment. This means protecting workers against harassment and bullying. Communicate and enforce a zero-tolerance bullying policy and clearly define behaviors that won’t be tolerated.

Offer harassment training to workers.

Get help for those who have a history or demonstrate signs of significant emotional intelligence challenges. This may include coaching, therapy or anger management. Coaching only works for those individuals who admit they have a problem and are willing to do the hard work associated with genuine personal reflection and the willingness to learn new behaviors.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email:

7 Tips To Handle a Difficult Co-worker

I received a number of requests from readers after last week’s column for a follow-up column on how to deal with a difficult co-worker.

First, we can all be “difficult” from time to time. It’s part of being human. Second, there will always be “difficult” co-workers. I coach people who have traded one job (and its problem “co-worker” or boss) only to find another difficult person at the next job. By the way, this may be a sign it’s more about you than them. Workplace success depends on being able to address conflict/challenge effectively and professionally.

Though no two situations are alike, most of these scenarios share a common factor — they make us anxious and/or uncomfortable. The solution depends on being able to work through the anxiety, and though there are myriad variables, here are some options to consider:

  1. First, get a reality check. Find a trusted co-worker or professional coach to help you sort through this objectively. Family members or friends who faithfully take your side may not be objective (or particularly helpful). Explore your piece of the “problem” equation. Did this person push one of your hot buttons? Is there a pattern here that you have experienced before with other co-workers? Is it possible you may be overreacting or even “projecting” what you don’t want to own in yourself on this “problem” person?
  2. Having figured out this situation is not about you, take courage and address it. These situations rarely get better without taking some kind of action. Walk through your own discomfort (there is probably learning in this for you) and deal with it directly. Arrange for a face-to-face meeting with the “problem” person. In many cases, talking it out can clear the air and even improve a strained relationship (depending on the delivery). Have a practice run for this meeting with someone who can coach you to use the right language and work through your potential reactivity. You’ll want to go into this meeting clear about your “talking points.”
  3. Be professional, courteous and respectful. Give this person straightforward feedback about how their behavior (not them personally) is affecting you in language that can’t be misunderstood. It’s quite possible they have no idea that their behavior is causing a problem for you. Enlighten them using “I” statements (“I feel disrespected when … “). Let them know your expectation for changed behavior and what you plan to do if the behavior continues (i.e., contact human resources or their boss, etc).
  4. Keep your composure. These conversations won’t go well if you can’t control your emotional behavior and reactivity. If they get reactive and yell, a) resist the urge to yell back, and b) try, “I can’t think with your voice raised. I’ll come back when you’ve had time to calm down.”

If the problem continues, additional options:

  1. Take it up. Go to his or her boss or yours with clear documentation regarding the specific incidents and offending behavior. Identify specifically the problem behavior and the effects on you or workplace performance. Let the boss know of your efforts to resolve the situation with the person directly (most bosses will want you to have first tried to resolve the situation yourself before bringing it to them). Ask for help. Explore the possibility that there has been a failure on the part of management to clarify roles, objectives and expectations that can underlie the root cause for the friction. Frankly, in my consultant role, I often find this is the case.
  2. There is strength in numbers. If other people have also experienced this person’s poor behavior, go together to see HR or top management. Fair warning: I hear from many workers who claim they go to HR and get no satisfaction. Candidly, though most have great intentions, HR personnel are often there to serve management and to protect the company.
  3. If you believe you are being bullied or abused, name it for what it is (“I’m being abused”) and then seek help (, HR, top management, doctors, attorneys, etc). If your health is at risk, see a doctor to get help and legal documentation of your stress. Depending on the price you are paying, you may need to find a new job or, in a larger company, ask to be transferred.

For the long term:

Develop skills to deal with conflict effectively and work on developing your personal authority and assertiveness. Conflict is a natural part of the workplace. Believe me, it’s impossible to avoid “differences” at work! Get some training or coaching to enhance your ability to deliver effective feedback and develop conflict resolution skills you can rely on.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email:

Leadership and Conflict

If you are a leader – your are in the business of conflict.  Research suggests the majority of managers spend a minimum of 20 percent of their time managing conflict. Yet studies also indicate that only 10 percent of managers handle conflict effectively. Conflict is a given in any workplace; differences will and do occur among co-workers, bosses and their reports. The challenge for managers is not to suppress (or avoid) conflict but to learn to manage it effectively.

When managed poorly, conflict can become unhealthy and may result in huge organizational cost — lost productivity, low morale and high turnover. Many managers bounce between the extremes of avoidance (hoping it will magically go away) or taking action in extreme ways (punishment, anger, blame, accusations or lashing out).

We have varying degrees of comfort with conflict, and approach it in different ways. Most of us have a “preferred” style of conflict management. This doesn’t mean we don’t use other styles. It means we have a greater comfort with (and tendency to employ) a particular style over others.

What is your preferred style for handling conflict? There are professional resources and assessments to help you identify this. One frequently used instrument is the TKI (Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument), which identifies the following five primary conflict management styles:

  • Avoiding — not addressing the conflict (postponing or withdrawing).
  • Accommodating — acquiescing and letting the other have his or her way (self-sacrificing for the sake of the relationship).
  • Competing — there will be one winner and one loser; using persuasion and power to win.
  • Compromising — each one gives a little and loses a little trying to find middle ground.
  • Collaborating — exploring for a win/win to create a solution that satisfies both parties.

As a professional leadership consultant, some of the most difficult executive challenges I am engaged with involve situations with great internal, organizational or interpersonal conflict.

Here are a few tips to handle conflict more effectively:

Invest upfront and spend more time contracting prior to the project kickoff. Define and set clear expectations for tasks, objectives and role responsibilities. Establish timelines and expected completion times for project benchmarks. If disagreement occurs during the project, go back to the contracting phase and review or, if necessary, re-establish expectations and roles.

Get clear about what the conflict is about. Managers need to remember that there are at least two sides to every story. It’s easy to lose sight of the facts when a conflict deteriorates into an emotionally charged interchange. It’s important to talk about what the core issues are, what’s not working and what can be done differently. Take the “helicopter” view and consider the systemic reason behind what has gone wrong. In my experience, the core issue is often a system or organizational process versus a personality or personal one. Long-term or repetitive conflicts often require professional organizational development expertise to help resolve systemic issues.

Avoid blaming. Blaming often generates defensiveness or retaliation. Own and communicate your contribution to the conflict. Use empathy (what it’s like to be in their shoes). Use curiosity to try to understand their perspective. Most people will “de-escalate” in a heated conflict if they feel heard, acknowledged and understood. This isn’t about agreement — it’s more about simply understanding where the other person is coming from. This is not easy when emotions are high (particularly if your “inner lizard” kicks in).

It can be highly beneficial to “debrief” after significant conflict. It’s important to create a plan for dealing with conflict moving forward — one that identifies what worked and didn’t work last time. Use these learnings to identify behaviors that may help resolve any future conflict. Nobody wants to go through unnecessary pain resolving the same problem again.

In a fast-moving, growing and challenging business environment, conflict in inevitable. It is also a highly effective process (when managed well) for any high-performing team to reach creative solutions. An organization without conflict isn’t trying hard enough.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email:

Conflict Thrives Without Clarity

Most workplace conflicts are the result of misunderstandings.

We all have a unique perspective. How we receive and interpret communication is a result of our mental models, beliefs, values, culture, religion, gender, life experiences, health — even whether we are having a good day.

Misunderstandings often occur as a result of how words and actions get filtered or “decoded” by the receiver. We hear (selectively) the words being spoken, appraise the tone and body language we observe and then instantly process that information and apply meaning to the message — all based on our personal experience and perception. It’s our interpretation of the message that determines how we react emotionally; no one makes us “feel” anything. Yet we often walk away from a misunderstanding blaming the other person for how he or she “made me feel.”

John Wallen astutely noted, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their impact.” Wallen’s practical “interpersonal gap” theory helps us recognize the great potential for misunderstandings. He describes the gap that often occurs in communication when the private intentions of a “sender” of a message don’t equal the result or “effect” of the communication on the “receiving” end of the message. In other words, the message I intended to convey is not what was received.

Many things influence interpretation — tone, words, facial expressions and our unique perception of the world. For example, a boss’s comment, “You weren’t at your desk this morning,” may have been intended to convey concern about your health yet might be interpreted as a nasty reminder about your tardiness or confirmation of your paranoia that the boss is out to get you. We often incorrectly ascribe “motives” around the other. Most conflicts are a result of that interpersonal gap.

How do we close the potential for interpersonal workplace gaps?

  • Provide clarity regarding your intention. What are you trying to accomplish? The more clearly you communicate your intentions, the better your odds of being understood.
  • Consider the potential for misunderstanding. Ask yourself, how could someone interpret this in a way that does not reflect my intention or the message I am trying to deliver?
  • Avoid sending double messages, and refrain from using sarcasm and passive aggression.
  • Don’t assume. We are often surprised by the reaction of someone to what we thought was a straightforward communication. A strong reaction often means there has been an interpersonal gap or misinterpretation. In such a case, you’d better work at closing the “gap.”
  • Don’t underestimate the “impact” factor. Both action and inaction have impact. A highly sensitive situation, poorly handled, can transform a small misunderstanding gap into a full-blown chasm.

What do you do when you are in an interpersonal gap?

  • Work it out quickly. Time is of the essence. If ignored, the gap grows.
  • De-escalate. Take a deep breath. Listen, paraphrase what you heard and acknowledge the other with empathy. Most people who believe they have been truly heard will calm down.
  • Don’t get personal. Instead, try to impartially roll the video and simply report what you heard and observed. Describe the behavior that leads you to your interpretation. Handling a challenge with just the facts instead of judgments will almost always have a better outcome.
  • Speak for yourself. Let the other know how you are affected by their message — including how you feel. “I’m angry to hear you call me unprofessional,” or, “I was hurt when you didn’t return my phone call.”
  • Verify your interpretations. Check in with the other to see if what you assume is correct. “By the tone of your voice, I’m guessing you are angry with me, am I right?”
  • Ask for clarification of anything that is unclear (particularly work instructions) or seems unreasonable (maybe you are just interpreting it wrong). Paraphrase your understanding of what was said.

For major problems, for example, your top performer is threatening to quit get an expert like me to help you.

One of the worst culprits for creating the potential for misunderstanding is our increasing dependency on e-mail, text, chat etc as our primary communication channel. There are no facial expressions or tone of voice to help the receiver interpret the message correctly — only words (many of which are loaded or inflammatory and may be interpreted in many different ways by the recipient). A good rule of thumb: If the message is sensitive or the potential to be misunderstood is great, relay your information face to face or by phone.

Bottom line — to clarify and work out misunderstandings, people need to talk directly to each other and work to close their “gaps.”

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: