Is a Verbal Bully Wreaking Havoc at Work?

8 Strategies to Regain Your Power

Was it tough for you to get out of bed this morning?

For me, it was. I was dreading a meeting; it was going to be a tough conversation with a verbal bully.

Ever been in a meeting with a colleague who verbally controls the conversation and bullies people in the process? It’s shocking and causes most of us to shut down; we flee or freeze. That’s how bullies control people; they shock and awe. They string together unnecessarily complicated vocabulary, speak aggressively and use antagonistic language.

In fear, we don’t dare call it out in real-time because if we do, we could become the next target, the next person to be verbally bullied in a meeting or on a call. Instead, we talk about it offline where it’s safe, less risky politically and culturally more polite. One by one, we turn a blind eye, press on and hope it doesn’t happen again. Yet slowly but surely, the verbal bully gains more and more power over us and the direction of the organization.

Calling out a bully takes courage – courage that is grounded in deeply held values and civil codes of behavior. Remember, courage helps us achieve tough performance goals, be more creative and realize our vision for delivering on our promises.

If you and your team are being taken out by a verbal bully, it’s affecting everything from performance to culture. It’s time to lead with courage. Fear allows these enemies to exist and courage calls them out.

What can you do?

  • As a team, department or company, work together to create a civil code of behavioral conduct for all conversations and meetings. If people breach the code, it’s fair game for being called out and for redirecting the uncivil bully behavior.
  • Be brave and calmly call out the offending language. Calm is a conversation superpower and is very useful with verbal bullies. Using calm, non-accusatory and respectful language lets the offender know the negative impact of their tone, words and style.
    Here is an example to borrow from: “Sandra, when you said you ‘violently disagree with me,’ your tone and word choice undermines our ability to foster a team environment and stalled our progress.” Then stop talking, let it sink in and redirect the conversation with professionalism and civility.
  • Speak up in support of a bullied team member. Ask the bully to rephrase their comment in a more civil way and to avoid being aggressive and confrontational.
  • Do not ignore a verbal bully, do not turn a blind eye and do not bully a bully – all are infectious and give the verbal bully more power. Bravery is far more effective and it is also contagious; others will be buoyed by your courage.
  • Rise strong together and collectively commit to practicing, speaking and spreading calm, civil and professional behaviors.
  • With specifics and details, talk to your manager about any verbal bullying, assuming they aren’t the bully. Doing so documents the experience and allows your manager to help you navigate the situation.
  • Be sure to document dates, details and make a note of any observers of the offense.
  • Go to HR. This takes courage too because no one wants to be seen as a complainer, but the consequences of working in an oppressive workplace are worth the risk. Ask what options are available to remedy the situation. HR will equip you with appropriate protocols.

Remember, there’s strength in numbers. Harness the collective and collaborative power of colleagues who may witness or be privy to the bully. Hold everyone accountable to civil and professional codes of conduct and dare to have difficult conversations with any verbal bullies. Bullies are detrimental to individual and collective performance and they’re toxic to an engaged workplace.