Dear New Shrink,
I have been in my current job for a little over three months now. I have really enjoyed my work and I’m doing well at my job. However, there is another woman in my department who has been extremely negative toward me. She will challenge me in meetings and often criticizes me in front of others. On several occasions she has invited everyone but me to lunch. Do bullies really exist in the workplace or am I just overly sensitive or paranoid? Do you have any thoughts on why she might be targeting me?
Bullied at Work
I am very sorry to hear about your situation. Yes, unfortunately bullies do exist in the workplace — they exist virtually everywhere. A bully is simply someone who uses words, physical actions, or threats to intimidate others. You are also not alone; estimates suggest that nearly 54 percent of Americans experience some sort of bully in their workplace.
Bullies often have a variety of reasons for their actions. In some cases bullies are actually intimidated or feel threatened by others and instead of dealing with those feelings they project them onto someone else. If a bully sees that you have great ideas, he or she may feel threatened about their own performance and attempt to find ways to threaten or scare you from bringing up additional ideas. Take for instance the fact that this woman in your office challenges you during meetings. It is likely that she feels intimidated by you and wants to challenge or threaten your credibility with the rest of the staff. If she can use her words or actions to keep you from sharing good ideas, she can remain in control. Similarly she may find that you are making strong friendships with your colleagues, which may threaten her power over others in the office. For this reason she may be excluding you from lunch to keep her sense of control and to show you “who’s boss.”
Dealing with a workplace bully takes careful planning and commitment. Start by talking with a mentor or trusted colleague. You may be able to start by asking a trusted associate if they notice anything unique about the way this person interacts with you. This colleague may also be able to share with you the techniques they use for effectively communicating or dealing with your troublesome co-worker. If you have a mentor you might want to call upon this person for advice as well. Gaining advice from an industry professional can help you to create and action plan and gauge the appropriate next steps.
Make sure your supervisor is aware of your work. If the bully is challenging your work or criticizing you in front of others she may also be sharing her thoughts with the management team. Keep focused on your work and keep performing at your best, your actions will speak much louder than her negative words.
Sometimes the best approach is to acknowledge the bully’s actions and establish limits. Start by talking with the bully in a neutral space. Acknowledge the actions you have seen her take from an objective tone — avoid adding in your subjective experience. Try something like, “I have noticed during the last two meetings that you have criticized me in front of the team by stating …” Then expand on how this affects your work or the team by saying, “I have found that when you criticize me it keeps other members of the team from sharing their ideas as well.”
Finally, establish limits or actions for future situations: “In the future, I would appreciate it if you could share your issues with me after the meeting.” Once you state your parameters, it’s important that you stick to your word. Bullies like having control but if they find that you are strong in your convictions they often reduce or eliminate their aggressive acts toward you.
You may find that if you are strong in your response to your co-worker that you may be able to establish a better working relationship. Perhaps the next time that she challenges or criticizes you during a meeting, rather than taking her complaints, you could ask her to provide an alternative solution. This may put the bully on the spot and prevent them from highlighting their lack of ideas in the future.
Finally, it is important for you to document your interactions with your co-worker. If you ever decide to seek support from your human resource department you will need to be prepared to share details on the date and time of the incident along with relevant details including whether other colleagues were witness to this act and if there were any follow-up actions.
KATRINA DAVY, M.A., Ed.M, is a Santa Monica based professional College and Career Counselor. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Cornell University. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. All questions are kept anonymous; let us help you with your life matters!