In an ideal world, everyone behaves rationally. We would get our work done through win-win interactions with others, by trading value for value and respecting agreed-upon principles. However, rational behavior is not automatic. It must be chosen and requires continual effort.
Those who engage in bullying tactics don’t choose rationality. Having had to deal with such tactics prompted me to reflect on bullying at work and how to deal with it.
In my definition, a bully is someone who uses intimidation to try to get what he wants, such as not having to meet agreed-upon standards, or making others bear the consequences of his mistakes by getting them to do extra work on his behalf.
A bully attempts to intimidate through various tactics. A common one is an argument from authority (a textbook logical fallacy): “Since I am more senior/esteemed/[insert any other perceived superiority], you should give in to my demands.” Sometimes a bully tries to bolster this argument by recruiting others who share his perceived ‘superiority’ for support: “All of us are more esteemed than you; you should do what we tell you.”
Another intimidation tactic is an accusation of incompetence: “You are not doing your job properly because you are not accommodating my demands.” And of course, there is a garden variety of threats: “I will appeal to your superiors to overrule you”, “I will make sure you will: get demoted/lose your job/not find another job in the field.” A bully also doesn’t hesitate to lie to get his way.
In general terms: a bully’s behavior is irrational, lacks integrity (doesn’t respect valid principles), and is unjust.
Such behavior has negative consequences for the entire workplace. It hampers the productivity of the bully’s targets and of others (including the bully himself), as it wastes everyone’s time. The bully badgers others with his demands, refusing to take a reasoned ‘no’ for an answer, and sends emails, requests meetings, moves up the organization in an attempt to get his way. Some targets of bullying can feel intimidated, which can be stressful and lower their productivity. And if bullying is not dealt with appropriately, it and its negative consequences continue.
So how to deal with a workplace bully? The only effective way to do so is to apply appropriate moral principles: rationality, integrity and justice.
The principle of rationality advises adhering to facts and acting accordingly. As the bully often attempts to intimidate by lying, it is important to state the facts—and to point them out to the bully himself and to others involved in the situation, such as those higher-ups that the bully has run to try to get his way. Any of the bully’s illogical arguments and untruthful claims should be exposed—in a calm, factual manner.
Integrity is a principle that reminds about the importance of adhering to principles: we shouldn’t compromise principles such as justice and cave in to a bully’s irrational demands. A bully often demands special treatment, arguing he is ‘special’ and the principle of justice doesn’t apply to him; he shouldn’t have to meet the same standards as others. If the workplace has adopted rational standards that help achieve the organization’s goals, then compromising them to appease a bully renders them useless. It is also important to state the principle(s) you will not compromise and explain why, referring to the bad consequences that compromising would yield.
The principle of justice guides us to evaluate people objectively, based on character and conduct, and to grant them what they deserve. If we ignore justice and let bullies get away with their irrational behavior, it is bound to continue, eroding everybody’s productivity and enjoyment of work. Justice requires that we call out a bully’s irrational behavior, in a rational manner, without resorting to his tactics (such as baseless accusations and illogical arguments) or emotionalism. Disregarding justice would mean tolerating the bully’s tactics, or worse, appeasing him and granting his irrational demands, or trying to compromise with him.
It is also important to let the bully’s boss know of his irrational behavior (this may be the only option for those who deal with an aggressive bully who is in a position of formal authority). If the boss is rational, he will deal with the bully using the principles outlined here. If not, it is time to seek employment elsewhere, as tolerance of bullies at the high levels of an organization means a work environment that is not conducive to thriving and producing.