Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Beating Workplace Bullies

Every week I would work with around six clients regarding workplace bullying issues. I have personally experienced workplace bullying and certainly understand the degree of despair, sense of hopelessness and helplessness generated by the bad behaviour of a co-worker. I can remember arriving at work and becoming so distressed as I stood at the entrance way to the office block in which I was working, that I was unable to enter the building. I cried uncontrollably, I was confused and bewildered by this outpouring of emotions. As a male I believed I could handle what was happening to me and that I could fight back and defeat the bully. I believed that those in a community service organisation would understand what was happening to me and would support me. I have never been so wrong.

I have used the past ten years trying to understand the impact Workplace Bullying has on people and finding ways to combat the bully. What I am about to explain to you is a process which I have used with many clients over the past year with outstanding success. When I have the opportunity to discuss this with targets of bullies they will often report how empowered they feel and they note a significant decrease in their anxiety. The steps are simple in a way and it surprises me that others haven't thought of using this technique.

1. Power

Ask yourself why does the bully have the power to influence how you feel about yourself, life in general and to affect your mental wellbeing?

Most people give this power to others. People in and off themselves do not have power over us, the power they have comes from what we believe about them. If we believe they can interfere with what we think and feel about ourself then they will have enormous power over us. But this power is power we attribute to them not power they have. We believe they may be able to sack us, prevent us from promotion or prohibit us from taking holidays or receiving professional development. We believe that when they gossip about us that they are able to influence others opinions of us.

Write what POWER you believe the bully has over your life.

Consider if that power is justified. Is it helpful for you hold these beliefs?

Now ask how important do you want this person to be in your life?

Would you invite this person to your birthday party?

Most people would say that if they could they would choose not to have this person in their life at all. That they are not important to them and if they could would prefer not to have anything to do with them.

Once we accept that it is what we believe about the power this person has we are then able to change our belief system and view the bully as powerless and lacking influence on our preferred view of who we are and how we want to interact with our world.

Bullies often are feeling powerless, humiliated, lonely, isolated, rejected, fearful, and believe that they will feel better if they can make you feel similar emotions.

It is your choice as to whether you wish to play their game. What is to follow is the game changer and a way by which you can change the rules.

2. Non-justification

Most of us believe that we need to justify what we do because it will help others to understand our motives and give them a clearer view of who we are. We do this by habit because we also believe it is a polite thing to do. We use an enormous amount of energy justifying our behaviour to people who don't give a damn. SO STOP IT NOW.

The most powerful word in assertion is the word "NO" without justification. Learn to just so "NO". Don't waste your time and energy on people who don't care about you and who are not going to change their view of you no matter how much time you spend explaining yourself.

This change in behaviour will change the rules and leave the bully confused because they will not know how to respond to you. Be aware though that they may became angry and confused, but this is their problem not yours.

3. Questions

This is the most exciting aspect of the three pronged response to bullies.

Remember you are now not justifying anything to them. But now you are going to just ask them open ended questions.

The questions are generic questions which can be used under all circumstances. The reason for asking questions is that the energy the bully is using by attacking you is often absorbed by you and integrated into you by your belief system of the power the bully has. This is now your opportunity to change the flow of energy back to the bully. It is important to make them think about what they are doing rather than attacking you.

I will give you some questions you can ask. These are so simple and have to integrated into your normal response when you are feeling attacked.


I am curious as to what you meant by what you just said?

I am wondering if you could clarify what you just said?

When you say ......... I am wondering if you know how that makes me feel?

The goal here is to have them justify what they say or do.

Write a list of questions which would best fit with the bully in your life and commit them to memory. Test the questions on people you know. Remember, there is nothing offensive or disrespectful by asking questions.

Above all have fun with this. Watch how the bully responds. They will become defensive when they realise you are changing the rules. They may even step up the bullying but as they do they well expose themselves as a bully. The best place to ask questions if you have the courage is in meetings so that others can observe the bullies response. Never enter into a debate with the bully if they begin to attack you. Maintain the focus on the questions. If they fail to answer a question just ask the questions again.

This strategy often results in the bully leaving you alone. One they realise that they no longer have the power to control you they will move onto someone else, unfortunately.

If this works for you become the educator of these techniques with you co-workers. Together you will change the workplace and the bully will either change their behaviour or they will leave.

Once you have tried this drop me a line and let me know how you have gone. If you want further help contact me through this blog or call me on the number below.

Have fun and be safe.

Tony Tonkin
Accredited Mental Health Social Worker
International Counselling Service
Ph 0414 883 153


  1. I really like the sound of this approach. It seems based on 'holding up a mirror' to the bully. I read recently that there are many bullies who don't/can't recognise their behaviour as intimidating or wrong or who simply don't have much empathy. Anyway, your 3 approaches are very logical and practical. Just saying 'no' is hard but brings such freedom.

  2. What most clients find is that there is a sense of gaining your power back if you use these three approaches. They are very empowering.

  3. I could fight back and defeat the bully. I believed that those in a community service organisation would understand what was happening to me and would support me clinical psychology degrees

  4. Thanks for a great post, Tony. I've been wondering about healthy workplaces and social work, lately.

    I'm a student social worker thinking about directions I'd like to focus on for my work. A clinical psych. recently cautioned me against social work within hospitals due to the antagonistic/hierarchical work culture. I was sad to hear that workers in a caring profession would suffer, as you brought up.

    Social workers I've asked say it generally depends on the workplace, like any profession. What are your thoughts? Do you think the cultures around social work positions are more resistant to workplace bullying?


    1. I work in a government run social service administration organization. The bullying comes from the top down. Supervisors bully openly and some, not all, employees feel empowered to do the same. The supervisor and coworker I presently work for are so sick and without empathy or insight I have become mentally and physically ill. I have six years to go until I am eligible for a small pension and I am trying to hold on, but I don't know if I will make it with my soul in tack. I believe that many people attracted to social services are people trying to solve their own deep seated psychological problems without doing the work therapy requires. It may be subconscious. I would advise any young person now in college to avoid social services at all costs. It is overall, a low paying path to burnout and working with coworkers that are a hundred times sicker than any client you will ever meet, that is unless you work in a prison for the criminally insane. Not kidding. Study something else.

  5. As a person who is a social worker and has been bullied in community service organisations by other workers and employers in the field of welfare (all women by the way) I have, through trial, error and a lot of emotional distress also arrived at a similar 'formula' to the one detailed above. I have to say this has been the only thing to have come close to working. However, I have been forced out of my job by bullies who, ultimately do have more power than you, regardless of your personal power. And don't rely on the support of your co-workers either - my bullies have done it openly and still gotten away with it.

  6. Thanks for posting this Tony, more information sharing like this is exactly what we need. As a collective, our profession is a powerhouse of knowledge so more suggestions, ideas, and options are great! In my case of WPB, the bully in my office would not tolerate any of these questions. She (social worker) and/also he (a psychologist), were exceptionally gifted at manipulating my co-wrkers and turning things around. After all, think of their training! They did have the power to affect my career and they were working hard to destroy me. In this case, what helped me to maintain my reputation, was remaining calm at all times (for fear of giving them any ammunition), and increasing my support system, educating myself on workplace bullying dynamics, seeking advice from my union and other officials, gathering evidence by keeping emails, (recording conversation on my cell phone), lowering my expectations of their professionalism (for this was too much shock for me to handle), while trying to remain prepared for the 'unpredictable' attacks. Though I accomplished my goal of remaining professional and true to who I was as a human being, I went home feeling miserable. I went looking for other work but remained somewhat stuck as I feared they would give me a negative reference. I eventually became chronically physically ill. Go figure! I have been doing anti-bullying work for social workers ever since. No matter what our circumstances, we need to place our safety and health first. Looking back, I see that I did all the right things to protect myself, stand up for myself and so on. But, if I were to do it again, I would have left immediately. This is something we need to seriously consider as soon as we see some blatant flags in the office. First we need to become aware of the signs "of a toxic environment" and/or "bullying leadership", we can make that choice a lot earlier if we see these signs. One last point about protecting ourselves, sharing our stories and speaking out is a 'powerful' way to create change in our workplaces, and in our work with others. Please read my story and review the many free resources on Thank you again!

  7. I really appreciate the posting Tony. Like my friend and colleague Linda, I too was bullied. I agree with her that as soon as you see indicators,you better start making your way to the door and close it behind you as you leave for the last time. Because no matter how insecure the bully is, they have the power and they are backed by the people above. Also, my story can be found on the same website: Thanks so much for the article.. They wider our network the stronger we will be.

  8. I enjoyed reading your post - and the No is a great idea

    I would be interested in hearing more suggestions for the questions.

    For example; When you say ......... I am wondering if you know how that makes me feel? would not work in situations I have been exposed to because the person told me "I don't give a shit about how you feel"

    Asking them the re-clarification question - they told me to shut the f*&^ up.

  9. Thank you for your feedback. I am often bewildered by the amount of bullying in the "helping professions". Amongst the nursing profession it is horrific. When I encounter a bully I wonder about their practice. You can be certain that they lack empathy are dictatorial and authoritative. My experience of being bullied changed the way I thought about my profession and caused me to wonder a little more about why people become social workers. What it did do was make me look at my own practice and to find more respectful ways of working with people. I never want anyone to feel as I felt. If I inadvertently harm another person I do all that I can to make amenze.

    The way I confront bullies is to let them know that their behaviour is unacceptable. Fortunately I am not fearful of them anymore. I know they are unable to harm me and just knowing that gives me a sense of purpose and power. In my work I see social workers bullying clients so my role is to find ways to empower clients to think differently about these people and to employ some of the strategies I have mentioned in this blog.

    Thank you all for your comments.