Yes, a law firm can be a pretty difficult place to work. You’ve gathered together and granted power to people with expensive educations in … well, winning. And that can be less than conducive to productive human relationships at times. Last week, we talked about one unfortunate expression of the dysfunctional relationship—bullying. Now let’s talk about steps you can take if you are on the receiving end of a bullying situation.
Confronting the Bully: Some Dos and Don’ts
Handling a bully is by its very nature difficult. To start, the person bullying you is often in a position of power—your boss, say, or a senior partner or a client. But things aren’t going to get better on their own, and you can’t just grin and bear it forever. You have to confront the bully with his own behavior. Don’t expect that to be easy—but it will be worth it. First some dos and dont’s to help you prepare.
1. Do get organized and pull together your thoughts before pushing back. Planning what to say ahead of time can jolt you into action so that you are ready when the opportunity arises. Keep a diary of things that the bully has said or done. Gather a group of friends and family around you to bolster you with encouragement. Then take a deep breath and get ready to meet, preferably one-to-one and face-to-face.
- Choose a moment in time when you are feeling calm.
- Rehearse what you want to say with a friend or relative. Ask for and accept emotional support.
- Be crystal clear with the bully about what she has done and that you find it unacceptable. It may help to diffuse the heat to use “I” language. For example, “When you do that it makes me feel ….” This makes it about the effect of their behavior. Don’t editorialize. Give it to her straight and allow time to apologize. (But don’t be surprised if that doesn’t happen.)
- Explain how you want things to be different and the consequences if things don’t change. “I would appreciate it if you will be more respectful of my contribution and opinions in the future. If, after this conversation, you continue to belittle me in meetings, I’ll have no choice but to discuss the matter with the managing partner.” Or, “In the future, you are not to enter my workspace unless I invite you in.”
2. Do be aggressive about taking care of yourself and the firm’s productivity. But don’t be “in your face” to the person who is doing the bullying. When confronting the bully, stay calm, speak with clarity, name exactly what is happening and (again) that you find it unacceptable. There’s no need to explain or justify. The fact that you find it unacceptable is sufficient. Really.
3. Don’t expect your colleagues to speak up. In an ideal world, your colleagues would chime in and express their own dissatisfaction with this behavior, too, because that sends a powerful message to the bully. Studies have shown that if bystanders speak up and challenge bullies, rather than just watching and hanging back, bullies are more deterred. Unfortunately, most co-workers will stay silent and hope the problem goes away on its own without involving them.
4. Do call them out. Yes, confronting a bully is scary and hard. But, as Jonathan Littman and Marc Hershon suggest in I Hate People, bullies are “only effective when they’re on solid ground. Ground that you can take away.” They suggest: “Next time he swears or heaves a phone book, call it out. Point out that he’s swearing or yelling, and leave the room. Or end the call.” This can work in meetings as well. If the bully is talking over you, criticizing and complaining, ask directly what she would recommend instead. Or, ask her to leave the room until you finish your presentation. You need to call out the bully on your terms.
5. Don’t back down.Perhaps the most important step is to follow through. If the behavior does change for the better, respond positively. If not, do what you threatened to do and take it to the managing partner or staff supervisor. If that doesn’t work, then it’s time to file a formal written complaint. Remember, bullies are like naughty children. They know it’s wrong so they don’t want to be found out.
6. Don’t be surprised if all doesn’t go smoothly. You are ruffling feathers. Making waves. Rocking the boat. Whatever you want to call it, you are challenging and confronting someone else’s disrespectful behavior, and perhaps the status quo. The outcome may not be neat and tidy. Whatever happens, though, you’ve nothing to gain by gossiping about bullying incidents or whining to colleagues. It’s important for you to be the grown-up who can name disrespectful behavior for what it is, with the quiet strength that comes from knowing you are doing the right thing.
Be proud of the courage it takes to do something about this problem and take care of yourself.
Merrilyn Astin Tarlton has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She was a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, past President of the College of Law Practice Management and an inaugural LMA Hall of Fame inductee. Merrilyn is a co-founder of Attorney at Work. Follow her @AstinTarlton.
Thanks to Jennifer Fay for contributing to this post. She is co-author of the groundbreaking book No More Secrets—Protecting Your Child From Sexual Assault, with Caren Adams. Jennifer has a master’s degree in psychology and has taught at the elementary school level. Currently, she is developing an original theater-based curriculum for lower and middle school teachers.