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How To Deal With Bullies in Leadership

(This is the third in a series of articles about bullies in leadership, their impact, and what you can do to handle them in the workplace).

Bullies are lurking everywhere.

They're in every company operating in a variety of positions, with diverse backgrounds. Sometimes they're disguised well, especially to their superiors. Other times, its plain to see who the bullies are no matter where you sit.

If you recently read TRUTH: Bullies Are Not Leaders, you know that bullies dismantle a person's emotional balance. As a coach who deals with bully victims, I've seen people suffer at the hands of bullies in ways that left them professionally crippled. Anguished over the deep humiliation, it changed their lives dramatically.

I've had a few run-ins with bullies myself. That's how I learned to deal with them.

Case in point: Iraq 2004. I have to note here that I encountered male AND female bullies throughout my time in Iraq, but these examples seem most relevant for today's article.

I was an HR defense contractor working for Halliburton/KBR and had been in Iraq for a couple of months. On the surface, things appeared to be going well for me in spite of the actual war going on around me. I worked hard, achieved some performance wins quickly, and got a promotion. As a result, I was transferring out from Al Asad near Ar Ramadi to a new camp.

Except, I was really leaving the base because I felt like I was in danger.

Not because of the bombings and attacks. There had been a handful of women on base at the time, and some went home because they had been physically attacked. Two women contractors had been raped. They filed a complaint to base management, and were immediately sent home.

The responsible party? A small group of hostile male bullies, all of them Americans and in leadership roles. They seemed untouchable, and the Head Project Manager turned a blind eye to their behavior. I called it The Wild West of the Middle East.

I always prided myself on the ability to build rapport with very difficult people, so when conflict arose between me and one of the bullies, Marian, I didn't back down, but tried to gently handle each situation.

Gentle did not work- completely.

I discovered that Marian had gotten two other contractors to stalk me. when I walked from my tent to the bathroom, they were there. When I went from the gym to the chow hall, they followed me. When I was in my tent, they were right outside.

I was genuinely frightened.

It was so blatant that a marine sergeant saw what was happening and began escorting me back and forth between camp and work. I was so thankful for this gentleman who kept me from an imminent attack.

Things started to look up when a female deputy project manager (DPM), Sylvia, came onsite a few weeks later. I explained what was happening and she took it upon herself to move me into her living quarters on an extra cot until I could get to my next base. She tried to help deal with the situation, and she was my hero.

The day finally came when I got on the plane and went to my next base in North Tikrit. I breathed a major sigh of relief as I watched the bully and his recruits, who were standing on the tarmac, get smaller and smaller. I could finally leave Al Asad and the nightmare behind.

All was okay for awhile until I got stuck in Baghdad due to the sandstorm season. I ended up working the travel department there for 6 weeks and encountered another bully in leadership, Mike.

Mike had a personality of intolerance for anyone who appeared to question his judgment. It was clear to our team that he was inexperienced in the role, and we constantly had to rework his mistakes (which impacted hundreds of traveling contractors getting to their locations in a timely fashion and on the right plane or bus).

I spent every single day calming angry contractors.

They were stuck in Baghdad, losing money because they had been left off the travel manifest, or their orders had not made it to the travel office thanks to Mike's lack of communication. He simply wasn't concerned about it.

While some of my colleagues were satisfied with just surviving through each day and avoiding his wrath, I was not. I set out to propose a few ideas to Mike to help our contractors and assist him with getting things back on track. When I made the suggestions during a team meeting, I instantly knew that he was seething and took it as a personal hit. Not good for me.

The next day, I came into the travel office and Mike was sitting at his desk. He looked over to one of the senior HR generalists, and said, "Anyone who messes with me, is going to have to face my friends, Smith & Wesson."

At that moment, he pulled out what appeared to be a black handgun from his desk. He looked over it, then glanced over at me. Who cares that having a handgun was against contractor policy! I immediately turned around and left the office.

God must have been looking out for me that day because a contractor with whom I had been talking with, Connie, ran into me and saw that I was visibly shaken. I explained what just took place and she contacted the head project manager, who happened to be a friend of hers in back in the US. This time I chose not to run, but stay and face the fight.

The situation was immediately investigated. Mike's gun turned out to be a toy water gun, and although he was disciplined, he continued to quietly taunt me and anyone else who opposed him. He eventually got terminated, but in the meantime, another site (Mosul) had requested me to transfer to them, so I was able to move on within a few weeks afterwards.

There are more of these stories during my 3 year stint in Iraq, but you get the point. Bullies are out there and they are real. It's like they're disguised as Santa Claus bringing all kinds of gifts to the company, but the toxic personality behind the suit starts to stink of meanness and disrespect. Once that happens, people are crying for help, and trying to get away from all the mess.


In TRUTH: Bullies Are Not Leaders and The Cost of Keeping Bullies in Leadership Positions, I stress that awareness is a key step in overcoming the situation. Understanding why bullies do what they do is helpful, but it doesn't excuse their behavior AND it certainly doesn't make you feel any better.

I want to point out one last thing before moving onto solutions.

Bullies want to isolate their victims.

I've found bullies to be afraid to operate alone. They force others to validate them by demanding they turn against or attack the victim. Bullies also like to separate their victims from the rest of the group so he or she can't gather strength. For both the bully and the victim, there is power in numbers.

So, moving on. Here are a few strategies I recommend you use to deal with bullies in leadership positions:

1. When dealing with a bully, start with assessing YOURSELF first.

Before you try to conquer Goliath, get clear on why you are reacting the way that you are. I find that people who are more severely affected by bullies are:

  • predisposed to having a fearful nature and worrying in general about a number of situations like change, fitting in, perfectionism

  • opposed to conflict and have a strong need for harmony

  • dealing with (or have dealt with) one or more traumatizing experiences in their personal lives

  • afflicted with a low self-esteem and self-worth issues

  • holding on to a belief that they can befriend and change a bully- and suffer disappointment when that doesn't happen

2. When choosing to to take action, weigh your strategic options.

Think through the following options with your eyes wide open, knowing that you can't change that other person, you can only change yourself and manage the situation. All of these strategies require strong executive presence characteristics to be activated.

  • Is this the time to be Diplomatic? I don't mean letting someone walk all over you. I mean calmly treating the bully just like you would any other person, with respect, dignity, and a listening ear. Especially if it is in a group setting. Have the guts to connect later with the bully in a 1:1 situation and give him or her feedback to clear your conscience.

  • Should You Hold Your Position? Are you being questioned on something that you are an expert in or have solid knowledge about, or are your values being challenged? As much as you want to jump into victim mode, or jump across the table and throat punch the bully, don't. Politely, but firmly stand your ground using neutral objective language. Clearly and calmly state your position with your reason and don't backtrack. A bully can smell a lack of confidence a mile away, and will exploit it, so show up with executive presence.

  • Is it time to rethink your approach and strategy? Are you going down the same rabbit hole you have before in meetings with this person? Stop and just hold your silence- temporarily. It's better to be quiet than to jump into a trap. Get to a safety zone and rethink how you need to respond differently to that situation. Careful though, you could overuse this strategy and succumb to victim mode.

  • Is it time for war? You've done everything you can on your own, and now it is time to gather the troops. Remember, bullies have a hard time standing up against a group- power in numbers. Talk to others who feel the same way and collectively approach your senior leadership. I've also seen where the group has requested a meeting with the bully to give feedback successfully.

3. Start a Bully Prevention Program at Work.

This sounds like grade school and it's similar in concept. Proactively starting an activist group is a new trend on the business horizon. In the business setting, you might call this the Social and Leadership Responsibility Program or some other acronym type name like NO-BULL-E (You are welcome to use that one for free).

4. Recognize that you have 4 choices.

It always comes down to doing what you can live with.

  • Do nothing and keep getting bullied

  • Change yourself and your reaction

  • Confront the situation at a higher or different level

  • Leave

Each choice has its consequences, but I encourage you to suffer through the blows and stand up to the situation. People will thank you for having the courage to do what they don't want to do. I've personally learned that running doesn't work. You will run from one bully right into another one.

Bottom line, business people have to stand up for what is right NOW, and it takes boldness.

The next time you face a bully, ask yourself if you should give control to that person, or if you should be true to your values- no matter the cost.

When you choose to let the bully come in and control you emotionally, it's not just about you. You are actually setting a precedent that it is okay to be bullied. Think about your audience: your organization, your family, and the generation to come after you.

As I write this, I'm personally thinking of my 8 year old daughter, Mackenzie. I am prompted to put her future above any job and any bully. She is worth the fight, she is watching, and so I am not willing to tolerate bullies anymore, period.

As a business coach, I show business people how to overcome socially complex situations like bullying through the School of Executive Presence. If you would like to learn more about how to deal with bullies and to develop a positive visibility and influential presence in business, contact me for a 30 minute consultant so we can discuss your development needs and coaching opportunities or visit The School of Executive Presence- Currently enrolling for programs!

Angie Nuttle School of Executive Presence

Angela Nuttle is an author, speaker, talent remodeler®, and consultant in talent and organizational development. As founder of The School of Executive Presence™, she teaches business people how to show up with executive presence and coaches them to business success. She also works directly with CEOS, Business Leaders, and HR Teams to develop people, potential, and processes that create productive and profitable business environments.

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