You can never forget that one bully from school who ate your lunch, gave you nicknames, and pulled pranks on you for public entertainment. Every year you would wish for your section to be shuffled, but then you’d only be discovered by another more vicious bully.
Once you are older and wiser, you assume that bullying would only be an unpleasant childhood memory. Wrong! Once you step into the corporate world, you realise that those playground bullies are still around — they’re all grown up but still as deadly.
When men at work bully, it’s more obvious. Their public ridiculing, swearing and shouting makes them pretty easy to spot and report. But when our fair gender bullies — she’s far more deadly as she is equipped with covert tactics such as gossiping, criticising behaviour, betraying secrets and social isolation.
As I write this, I fear the backlash from my fellow esprit de corps as this is not your openly acknowledged working woman issue and women would still like to believe that some sisterhood exists at work. Sadly, workplace bullying is four times more rampant than sexual harassment and 40 per cent of the bullies, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, are actually … women!
Could it be that there are so few of us at the workplace that we are compelled to bring our own gender down in order to be noticed? Is it a natural, critical, judgmental instinct — our self-identity tied to how other women make us feel? Or is it because most organisations are run by men and we believe that this is acceptable aggressive male behaviour? Whatever the reasons may be, survival is dependent on you spotting a bully before she singles you out. I present to you the seven ultimate habits of bullies and how to counter them all.
1- Silent but violent
Ever heard of the praying mantis’ hunting style? It can sit quietly for hours until the prey gets close enough for a lightning speed attack and then the mantis devours its victim head first. Pretty cruel … right? But isn’t that similar to the silent treatment of certain female bosses? You can keep going to her in person with a problem and she’ll always brush you away like a fly. You can bombard her with e-mails colour coded in red and she’ll never blink at you once. But once the task blows up to a doomsday scenario, she’ll instantly turn around and blame you for not managing it better. And of course, her being unavailable for a discussion or decisions and unresponsive to your pleas obviously will never feature in this conversation.
For this bully, it’s best to break tasks into smaller milestones which clearly outline where and when you need her decision-making and direction. Keep scheduling regular meetings and keep a track of these meeting requests in writing. This way she’ll be forced into the habit of giving you undivided attention and cannot wriggle out of taking joint responsibility. And never leave meetings without closing action items and reminding her about the next meeting, preferably via e-mail so there is a paper trail.
2- Lady Psycho
Think Norman Bates from the movie Psycho. She’s sweet as pie on some days and can act like your best friend, but then there’ll be days when you’ll feel that she could be chasing you around in the office with a knife. She is unpredictable and you’ll never know where you stand with her. You can basically not trust her at all. You know this because when she’s done with her victims, they all resemble roadkill.
It’s best to limit your interaction with her, stay on her good side and keep the relationship limited to niceties. Do not share your views and opinions with her and avoid any personal discussions. You just don’t know in what shape or form they might come back at you. In other words avoid prolonged visits to the Bates Motel.
3- F is for Failure
She will give you impossible deadlines and unrealistic workload, with the single motive of making sure you fail. Make no mistake, this is no childhood lesson designed to build your character. These projects are made for disaster and doom. She’s setting you up for a public fall.
To counter this bully, you have to muster all your assertiveness. It’s best to go prepared for this discussion by detailing all the tasks on your plate, their timelines and their scope so she realises how busy you are with work. Reiterate that you are appreciative of her trust in letting you work on so many projects but you need sufficient time to do a great job and make her proud.
4- The Watchdog
She monitors you so closely that you’re almost tempted to find her a job at the Inter-Services Intelligence. From insiting on updates about your whereabouts to clocking time in and out like a prisoner, this bully’s signature style is micromanagement and she insists on calling it perfectionism and high standards. If you didn’t spend so much time updating her, you could actually get things done faster.
This one will need serious trust-building from your side. Start by proving that regardless of your physical presence you’ll never miss a deadline. Volunteer for projects and ask for tasks that are on her to-do list. Get all the information upfront and promise exceptional results. Make sure you keep review meetings to communicate progress and pacify her till you are finished. Volunteer, communicate, deliver and repeat until you have taught her effective delegation.
5- You’re never good enough
If you had a penny for all the times she gave you feedback with a ‘but’ in the sentence, you wouldn’t need this job. She excessively criticises and gives invalid feedback even if others have appreciated the same piece of work. You could climb Mount Everest and she would tell you ‘but you’re not the first person to do it’. Her expectations and standards are a conundrum that even Einstein wouldn’t be able to crack.
Make sure you set the expectations and desired results before starting on tasks and get them formalised on a report or e-mail. Every time you feel the objective is straying too far from the agreement bring up the initial discussion and ask her to clarify. The more you stick to rules, objectives and specific targets the more difficult it will be for her to give unjustified criticism. Another tip that can go in your favour is to make sure multiple stakeholders have a view on your performance and ability — which is sure to outnumber her in the end.
6- Gossip Girl
Remember girls at your school discussing others in the ladies’ room? The same gossiping gets perfected over time and spills over at work. The objective is very obvious — sabotage, backstab, disrespect and undermine someone’s abilities. The rules of this game are not fair since you hardly know what is being said and fabricated. But when the gossip girl happens to be your boss, prepare yourself for the worst.
There are only two ways to deal with it: either confront her or keep your head cool and focus on your work. Do your job really well and make sure a wide audience is a witness to your competence.
7- Death by exclusion
It could be the smallest thing, like forgetting to invite you for an office lunch to holding back on projects, important information, or not inviting you to meetings which make you feel like an outsider. The problem with this behaviour is that it’s difficult to pinpoint and confront. The alibi of your bully for this crime will always be ‘it was a mistake’, which will only make you feel more confused, vulnerable and invisible.
Even if you are doubtful about the intentions of your bully, don’t shy away from talking about how it made you feel. State her behaviour or what you have heard, the impact it had on you and the consequences of it on your career. Use ‘I’ statements, specific examples and physically hold your ground. Another way to tackle this is to make sure you are clued into what is happening at the workplace so that you are not dependent on formal channels of communication.
Word to the wise
At some point or the other in your career, you will encounter some form of bullying and it’s easy to fall into the trap of victimhood. This is exactly the intention of the bully. Take heart in knowing that you have something that your bully envies and she may even view you as a possible threat. The only way to beat bullies is to believe in yourself, be strong and put a stop to their behaviour if you see it happening to someone else. If all else fails, leave this article casually on their desk and hope they can spot themselves.
Madiha Khalid is a serious HR professional who test-drives all employee motivational strategies on her two-year-old son first.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, September 2nd, 2012.