by Melanie Harvard – The Uncommon Coach

(warning – some uncouth language has been used in this article – so don’t read if this may offend you)

All rights reserved © Melanie Harvard – the uncommon coach TM

Bullies aren’t just found on the school playground!

They are everywhere – of all ages, genders, races, creeds and backgrounds. From that ‘sweet’ little granny right through to the CEO of a company.

They are responsible for over 60% productivity loss in the workplace if left unchecked – not to mention the damage in their personal relations or public lives. They cause anxiety, demotivation, depression and high stress in those around them.

Over 50% of adults report being on the receiving end of bullies. Unsurprisingly less than 1% report ever having bullied others – of course some of us wouldn’t want to admit it and more likely many aren’t even aware they’re doing it.

The answer lies first with ourselves.

In The Asshole Survival Guide by Robert Sutton he says “Be quick to label yourself an asshole and slow to label others.”

So a good question to ask is “Where, when and how might I be viewed as an asshole or a bully?” and “Where are my actions causing others pain?” It’s a really tough and REALLY BRAVE question to sit with and unpack.

We all have bad days – much like a toddler, being tired, hungry, overheated, ill, in pain, stressed and so on, can turn the best of us into a temporary asshole at times.

External factors, and our histories, either raise or lower our levels of tolerance for life’s stresses and depending on our self-awareness and self-control then carry through into how we behave.

Just yesterday – after a night of no sleep – my tiredness made me grumpier, quicker to respond with higher levels of negativity and impatience. I made mistakes dealing with clients and staff that could have been avoided if I’d had better clarity and ability to think things through. At least I was aware that it was happening and could apologise and remove myself from the situation.

It’s when bad behaviour becomes a habit and the norm that you can cause real trouble and unnecessary pain for yourself and others.

How do we know when we are being a bully and/or a bit of an ass? How do we know when we are being bullied?

·        When someone ends up feeling bad, depressed, de-energised, demotivated, or drained

·        Language used is negative – toxic to or about others – critical and destructive – personal or vindictive

·        Acts are abusive – physically or mentally/emotionally damaging to others

·        Behaviour has little to no regard for others – in such a way that they are damaged by the selfishness

The problem with this stuff is that not only that it really sucks eggs, but also that it causes serious damage. Even if the bad behaviour isn’t directed at you – merely being around it can have as bad an effect on people as if they were it’s target. And it’s contagious too. Bad behaviour incites more bad behaviour and turns into a negative cycle of pain for everyone.

The effects can last hours, days or longer. It freezes workplace productivity causing serious bottom-line impact and entrenched toxic patterns in organisations. Turnover and absenteeism go up – people sit demotivated and trying to process the most recent nastiness rather than focussing on their jobs. They go home and snap at their partner, kids and pets. The misery grows.

It destroys relationships. It dehumanises, breaks down, and generally makes life that much harder and shittier.

Bullies often try to justify their behaviour by saying others must ‘toughen up’ or ‘people need to know the truth’ (as THEY see it) or explain away their disgusting behaviour as a natural power-differential or just the way it is. They like to play the victim too, and use this as an excuse to attack.

Bullies and assholes often use te excuse that they have to behave this way to get results.

But, never in all my years have I known anyone to change, significantly improve or grow as a result of being broken down, continuously criticised, or abused.

NO reason (excuse) justifies treating other people like crap. If you are guilty of this you need to face up to the fact that you are indeed, being an asshole. If you are experiencing this – like the old saying goes, “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”

So what can be done about any of this? Surely assholes and bullies are just part of life?

Well yes and no – no matter what you do you are sure to bump into one occasionally. However, there are ways to lessen the damage they do.

If someone is behaving badly and this is not their normal behaviour – then your best bet is to not take the behaviour personally, and to give them time and space to self-correct and hopefully apologise.

If it’s a stranger you’ll likely never see again – someone cutting you off in traffic or being rude in the check-out queue – it’s probably also best to create distance between you and the problem. Remind yourself that you are not the asshole-whisperer and apart from protecting yourself from actual danger any attempt to ‘teach them a lesson’ could easily backfire and end up with you looking like the bigger ass in the end.

BUT if it becomes more repetitive then it’s time to sit up and pay attention.

If you think you might be the one behaving like an ass, then start working on self-awareness and self-control. Look at replacing the damaging behaviour with better behaviour choices. That’s a whole library full of books on its own – but basically anything you do to work on yourself will be a step in the right direction. Be brave, ask some friends and colleagues what they feel your worst behaviour habits are and get started. Be open to constructive input. At work, a useful team exercise is for everyone to get a bunch of adjectives cut-out in a pile, from which they can anonymously choose – both good and bad – and stick up under each team member’s names. This can be a tough pill to swallow! When I did this with my little team a few years ago, some of my descriptors were “bossy”, “impatient” and “interrupts”. I had to make some swift personal change – and still work on myself – one day at a time – to be a better person, a better friend, a better boss, a better team player and a better mother. I know I have lots more work to do but at least I am aware of my main issues to a large degree, and I am open to useful input and change.

It’s those people who have little self-awareness – who happily trundle through life – barging over others with their crappy behaviour – which are the real pain in the ass.

Can an ass be a pain in itself? Good question – and yes. Often people like this ARE carrying a lot of inner pain – and it can be tempting to at least TRY help them.

Unless you’re a trained therapist or they have actually come to you for help – I would advise against trying to fix the world.

People have to want to change and be open to it.

If you are unfortunate enough to be in regular and/or close contact with a bully or an asshole – your first step is to protect yourself, and this is how:

·        Understand you can’t fix crazy – really get that it is not your job to fix others. Rather look at what you can change about yourself or what you are doing – to change the situation.

·        Create space – even a couple of metres can make a huge difference – but the further away and less time together, or chance of interaction, the better.

·        Don’t take it personally – an asshole’s bad behaviour is generally about their own issues, insecurities, bad habits, faulty thinking etc. I repeat a little mantra in my head “Nothing to do with me”. Of course, a little self-reflection at some point might help – especially if there is more than 1 person telling you the same thing about yourself.

·        Step back – mentally and emotionally create space – detach and remove your focus off the stress and bad behaviour as much as you possibly can. Find your happy place – rainbows and whiskers on kittens or whatever floats your boat – and gently but firmly transfer your attention and thoughts there. After all, do you really want to waste your precious time fretting, stressing and worrying about an asshole who probably barely thinks about you?

·        Ask – Does it really matter? Picture yourself on a beach or at home in a few hours, or whatever you’ll be doing on the weekend . . . by visualising how little this will matter after some time has passed – you take the immediate sting out of it all.

·        Slow the pace – don’t react, respond or deal with that email, or verbal abuse, straight away. In fact, take as long as possible. This helps you calm down, so YOU don’t also behave like an ass AND if the bully is one of those who gets pleasure out of causing others pain or making people dance to their tune, you lessen the chance of this behaviour repeating each time you ignore it.

·        Reward the good behaviour and ignore the bad – basic behavioural psych 101 – authentically praise or feedback your real appreciation when you see the behaviour you want. Don’t react, and distance yourself from the bad – because ANY attention, even negative – can give the bully a thrill and feed the chances of it happening more often. In The Asshole Survival Guide, Sutton cites a fascinating experiment which proves that some people’s pleasure-centres in their brain light up when they see the suffering of another. Those are the worst, craziest type of bully – get out, get away and don’t engage.

Ignoring bad behaviour doesn’t mean allowing people to cross your boundaries or harm you – but get clear on what you can reasonably do in a calm and logical way if this happens.

·        Get clear on your boundaries and your values. Go to my website in the tools section for a really useful boundaries tool.

·        Undemonise them – much like a mother does with a toddler throwing a tantrum – she doesn’t take it personally and the toddler is seen as going through a phase – they still have a lot to learn. She can then be more patient and calmer. While badly-behaved adults don’t have the excuse of youth – if you take the personal out of it and realise that these people also still have a lot to learn, and are perhaps damaged, it helps you distance yourself and not take it so personally. 

·        Also – you often create what you expect – so if you go into a meeting with your boss expecting him to behave like an ass – that is most likely what you will get. If you expect the people at the shops or on the road to be assholes – you may find more than usual. Who you are being could very well be contributing to the problem. So allow others the space to change and grow – and do your best to notice and be responsive to their good side too.

·        Be a nice human – my Gramma used to say, “No matter what others do, you use your manners.” It has become a bit of a joke amongst friends that I would happily destroy someone in the politest way possible – and tell them to have a good day after. Luckily, I am not in the habit of people destruction – as that’s a bit assholish.

Sometimes ‘love bombing’ a problem person can ease the bad behaviour – if you are prepared to do this. Instead of killing them, GROW them with kindness. Often easier said than done AND it has to be real – as faked care and kindness is too obvious. If you are not wanting to try that – at least be as calm, respectful and as kind as you can. It will show the career assholes up – AND may even be a good example to some of them. Maybe. By treating bad behaviour with your own bad behaviour – you are also being an ass – and again, as Gramma said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

·        Laugh it off! If you can find ANY humour in a bully situation use it. It always makes you feel better. Look at it from an outside perspective – someone getting up close and screaming in your face, or getting that worked up to spend hours to send you a 10-page email with diagrams of how bad you are, for example, is actually pretty funny and they really look like SUCH an ass. Humour is the best healer.

No matter what works or doesn’t work for you when faced with difficult or unpleasant people – at some point we need to call it quits. If you have tried everything and you are STILL miserable in a toxic workplace or a toxic relationship – then perhaps it’s time to create permanent space from the problem.

The bottom line is why go through life letting others make you feel bad . . . when there are so many nice humans and good workplaces out there. Truly – I have met a lot of them – they exist.

Be open to the possibility that the reality you are currently experiencing is not necessarily just HOW THINGS ARE, or how life has to be.

As the parking machines in shopping malls say when you feed in your cash notes, “Change is possible.”