Bully Proof Your Work Life: 10 Steps to Dealing with Difficult People at Work

Angry woman pointingRelationships with our co-workers and bosses can really affect our lives! When they go well our lives are enriched. When they are difficult, we and our families can suffer.

At work, the principles of Internal Family Systems Therapy can help you:

• Maintain your Self qualities when you are under the gun: Calm, Clarity, Connection, Compassion, Courage, Creativity, and Confidence
• If something gets in the way of these qualities, it’s probably a Protector Part and/or an Exile. Pay attention to them, and they may let you get back to your Self qualities and Self leadership.

Read on to find out how Internal Family Systems can help you at work.

Maybe your boss or co-worker:

  • Is unaware of your contributions
  • Is uncaring about your feelings
  • Uses your services without thanks or acknowledgment
  • Insults you
  • Is unappreciative
  • Steals credit
  • Intimidates you
  • Changes plans without telling you
  • Doesn’t apologize
  • Reacts defensively to feedback

Do you bounce between wanting to fight this person or leave the job?
Do you spend too much time seething, losing sleep over it, or feeling helpless?
Do you find yourself complaining to others and not to the one you’re upset with?

If you’ve had these experiences you know how hard it is to deal with difficult co-workers or bullies at work. But there is something you can do.

Below are ten principles for dealing with bullies and difficult people at work:

1. Don’t try to win.

You won’t win. Bullies and difficult people are often willing to fight dirty. You won’t want to descend to their level. Trying to win weakens your communication. Instead of trying to win:

  • Try to communicate clearly
  • Stay calm
  • Speak in a way that you can respect yourself
  • Focus on maintaining your own calm, connection, confidence, and clarity
  • Judge the success of your communication by how clearly you express yourself, not by winning

Bullies will probably not admit their errors in front of you, but they may change their behavior.

2. Don’t try to change the bully.

Bullies are not usually concerned about their behavior. Remember The Devil Wears Prada? Did the Meryl Streep character look concerned about her effect on others? People that complain are usually the bullies, not the bulliers. You can waste a lot of energy trying to change bullies. Don’t do it!

3. Confrontation is sometimes necessary.

You may need to stick up for yourself. It’s not easy but if you prepare yourself ahead of time you can do it. Whether the confrontation is over shared credit, irritating co-worker habits, or to keep a project on track, sometimes you need to confront a coworker or a boss. The good news is that while confrontation is almost never your first choice, you can become better and more comfortable with necessary conflict. When you do confront, remember to:

  • Feel a sense of connection with the person you are confronting
  • Stay calm
  • Be clear
  • Be courageous
  • Avoid forcing; be patient about change

4. Don’t judge the person.

When you judge you lose your own power. State your beliefs and experiences clearly with NO judgment of the other person. Judging the person will make them want to fight you. If you don’t judge, they don’t have an opening to fight.

5. Be clear about your own experiences.

Use short, clear sentences and simple, unambiguous words.

6. Talk mainly about yourself, your experiences, and your preferences.

Avoid talking about the other person’s behavior. That will usually get you a defensive, attacking response. Focus on your experiences – nobody can say you don’t feel the way you do. It’s hard to argue with someone when they are just saying how they feel about something.

Instead of saying: You are so unappreciative of my contributions.
Say: Like anybody, I want to be appreciated and acknowledged for what I do here. I don’t hear much appreciation from you.

Instead of saying: You insult me all the time.
Say: I like to hear productive, direct feedback about my work. Insulting or demeaning comments don’t help me and that’s not the kind of working environment I want.

Emphasize preferences over demands. Saying what you prefer is very powerful. Demanding something can leave you powerless, because what will you do if you don’t get your demands? Quit? If you aren’t ready to quit, don’t demand.

Instead of saying: I need you to acknowledge me for my contributions to the project.
Say: I prefer being acknowledged for my contributions.

7. Stay connected.

You may think that you should be cold to make a powerful statement. Or that connecting with the person means that you are condoning their behavior. Or maybe that if you connect you will be consumed by their negativity. None of this is true. You will be more powerful, have a bigger effect, and be better able to maintain your own positive energy if you feel connected to the person.

8. Be prepared to get a bad response.

Don’t anticipate a good response. Nobody likes feedback, and bullies are no exception. Be ready for anything! Before you confront the person, think ahead about the bad responses you might get, and prepare yourself for each one. Are you going to collapse, get angry, or give up if you don’t get the response you want? Plan ahead to make a different response. The chapter on feedback in Bring Yourself to Love has a worksheet to help you with this.

9. Don’t get caught in being too “nice.”

You may think you have to be the nice person – the pleaser, the peacemaker, the well-liked person. Bullies may not respond to this. Ask yourself why you need to do this. Is it a habitual pattern? Did you have a volatile situation in your childhood so you felt you needed to be the calm, peaceful one? What are you trying to accomplish by being the nice one? You probably have good intentions, but this may not be the right situation for these intentions. See if you can talk yourself out of being nice, and instead be clear, direct, and aware of yourself and the responses you are getting.

10. If something inside you gets in the way of following these suggestions, be kind to yourself.

Does all this seem like a tall order? If you think you’ll have difficulty with these suggestions, here’s the best way to overcome them:

  • Acknowledge and appreciate what might get in the way.
  • You developed habits and patterns for a reason – they helped you grow up in your family and culture.
  • Be kind to these parts of you. They have good intentions.

© Copyright 2010 by Mona R. Barbera, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Amy H

    February 3rd, 2010 at 1:43 PM

    The truth is that there are always going to be difficult people that you have to work with and work for but there is no need to let that stress you out. I used to do that a long time ago before I came to the realization that life is too short to let those kinds of things bother me all of the time. Yes I had to suck it up sometimes and put my big girl pants on to avoid a confrontation, but that always seems to be the best policy. The more you feed into a situation the more it is going to fester and grow. So turn the other cheek when possible is what I always say, and if that doesn’t work then you have to decide if the job is worth all of the headaches to begin with.

  • Francis W.

    February 3rd, 2010 at 7:34 PM

    Most bullies are cowards underneath. When you stand up to them, they tend to slink away and leave you alone after that. Not always but it happens. They prefer softer targets.

  • samantha jacobs

    February 3rd, 2010 at 7:40 PM

    Having difficult people around you at the workplace is really frustrating, but the same can be overcome by having a few good friends at the workplaces and also by trying to get those difficult people to be a little un-evil with you by being nice to them ;)

  • Cassie V.

    February 3rd, 2010 at 8:14 PM

    What is hard is staying calm. When I get angry and stressed I have an annoying habit of crying. Not out of fear, but frustration. Any bully type has always seen that as weakness on my part. How can I hold those tears back?

  • Katherine

    February 3rd, 2010 at 8:33 PM

    Most bully bosses have learned from their own former bullying bosses. They think intimidation is good management. If you can remain unperturbed in the face of it, you can rise above it using Mona’s techniques. Fabulous article, Mona!

  • Vivian

    February 3rd, 2010 at 9:01 PM

    Don’t accept it. Bullying in the workplace comes under the umbrella of Health and Safety. Report it to Human Resources. Zero tolerance.

  • Neil

    February 3rd, 2010 at 9:12 PM

    Before you jump in and report it, prepare. HR will want and need evidence.

    Keep a log of what happened and when. Also a note of any witnesses to altercations and evidence that shows the boss’s criticism is unwarranted. Does he say you’re always late when you’re not? Show time sheets. Does he claim your work is sloppy? Show evidence it isn’t.

    Don’t give HR the originals. Keep a spare copy of everything at home for safekeeping. Somehow I get the feeling that bullies aren’t above going through your desk to destroy evidence of their misdeeds.

  • Craig H.

    February 4th, 2010 at 2:28 PM

    You can also report it to your union rep if you have one.

  • Fletcher

    February 4th, 2010 at 2:39 PM

    Unfortunately bullying per se isn’t illegal to my knowledge. Know the difference. Bullying that oversteps the boundaries even more and is about hatred of your race, sexual orientation, religion, disability, gender and more — that’s harassment and that is illegal. Check where you stand legally.

  • geral

    October 3rd, 2010 at 7:07 PM

    “As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
    In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains
    seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must
    be most aware of change in the air — however slight —
    lest we become unwitting victims
    of the darkness.” ~ Justice William O. Douglas

  • Mildred

    November 3rd, 2010 at 4:41 PM

    Dear Dr. Mona,
    Thanks for this post. I work in a huge public bureacracy where good work doesn’t go unpunished. In other words, if you shine too much through good work, creativity or passion, you’ll piss someone off. The someone in my case is a co-worker who thinks of himself as ‘the boss.’ He’s been passed over for leadership a number of times, and I think this has made him sublimely bitter and threatened. He is always looking for someone to subordinate. With time, even your good advice can wear thin. How does one continue to do excellent work over the long-haul, while being surveilled, micro-managed and diminished by a bitter co-worker with a huge wild hair up in there? It gets tiresome and I’m reaching a point where I can barely stand to be in this sick person’s presence.
    Thanks. Loved this essay.

  • Ben Steinke

    March 22nd, 2014 at 6:21 PM

    I work for a tree-trimming and landscaping service, and there’s this new guy who berates me for not knowing how to repair equipment or tie/untie knots in the ropes he uses with his climbing equipment. He says things like, “Oh, come on—you should know how to do this….you’re a guy!!” I am afraid to tell him off because he is a felon on probation who seems to have a temper and doesn’t like me or want to listen to or talk to me. One of my co-workers tells me to ignore me and that he’ll apologize, but he never has.

  • Anne C

    August 7th, 2014 at 6:01 AM

    to Mildred: inside a public service organization there are opportunities. Get yourself a promotion! At least a lateral that would broaden your experience so you will soon get promoted. That strategy worked well for me in those circumstances over decades. Boosted my self esteem too. Alas there were always bullies including at the very top, but by then you can make decisions about the rest of your life.

  • Anne C

    August 7th, 2014 at 6:15 AM

    Sad that being nice is a bad thing. What if people want to be nice to, say, make the world a better place, set an example, be their authentic selves, give others a chance to improve, that sort of thing? Rather then tell people to reconsider being nice, perhaps look at their behaviour from the perspective that there are wolves in the world and offering them your neck is not conducive to your survival. Save nice for people and situations that deserve it, and learn to bare your teeth, even if you don t bite. Then get away. In the bureaucratic environment, the bullies when challenged will simply revert to sneaks and get you from behind. Where they dominate, unless you have balls of steel to take them down, get out.

  • Laura

    April 7th, 2016 at 12:48 AM

    Hi Ben and Mildred,
    Here’s my take on dealing with a colleague who is difficult.
    With a colleague there is a luxury that you don’t have with a boss; a boss can fire you a colleague, unless they are connected to the boss, can not. I would use this to your advantage. You can either be firm or kind, it’s up to you and your best judgement. I would talk to the offending co-worker alone and say ” you said this and such to me and I would prefer you not say that to me, as we are all aware of I don’t work for you. I would like to have a productive working relationship with you and this is in your hands; you can continue to aggravate and/or alienate me or not. I hope you do not choose to create an environment that it is difficult to work within.” These are my words you can find your own but a) re-frame them as the problem and b) acknowledge that it is all about being productive at work. Keep track of these conversations in case you need to bring this to the attention of someone else. This is you drawing a line in the sand to a bully.
    Good luck!

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