TeamBuild June 2017: Bullies

When I started consulting, I didn’t believe there were adult bullies. I was wrong.

In my May blog, I talked about “radical empathy” for difficult or oppositional people. But some people are not just naysayers. Bullies can be covert and quiet or they can yell and throw chairs (I didn’t see the chair thrown but heard various accounts of it). The behavior of someone like this is corrosive in one-on-one relationships and can upend a group.

With bullies I’ve learned that some strong personalities are creative, brilliant, and useful to a team and that others cannot be tamed. In both cases, my approach is to hold steady and address these individuals head on.

In one team I worked with, there was a person with a reputation as a bully. I met with him before the first group meeting and viscerally felt his power. But I liked him. It was apparent that, if he would collaborate with the team, he was unusually creative, had a lot of energy, and was very persuasive.

At first, he contributed appropriately. But in the third meeting, he got angry. Not surprisingly, he got angry at me. He stood up, walked towards me, and waved an email that he demanded I read to the group. Unprepared for this, I said no. I hadn’t read the email thoroughly. He raised his voice, “You said you read it before this meeting!” I countered that I had skimmed it and wasn’t going to read it out loud now.

After the meeting, I called him to explain why I hadn’t interrupted the meeting to read the email (it wasn’t on topic and reading a prepared statement was out of place with a dynamic conversation). His response? “Oh, okay,” he said.

In a different group, someone who had spoken twice, asked for the floor a third time. I told him that I was going to call first on people who hadn’t spoken yet. He stomped out of the room. (The CEO followed him.) I let him go. Later, he returned and waited his turn.

In cases like these, the group is waiting to see what norms will be enforced. Bullies push until stopped. Being firm, calm, and consistent can set the boundary the bully needs. I model how to stand up to a strong personality. The group appreciates that the bullying won’t continue.

That being said, I have also dealt with people who won’t stop bullying. I coached a senior VP for a half year to give her perspective that what she was facing was inappropriate and to give her tools to manage one individual. She held firm, and he was fired.

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