The one sure way to escape bullying

Sales & Marketing

Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. This post addresses the issue of bullying and how you might mitigate or stop it if ever confronted with a bullying manager, business partner, or peer.

You know a bully when you see one. Or maybe you don’t? As most true bullies seem terribly nice and sweet initially. They appear to have learned that it takes grooming to lure victims into their net. To then turn on them.

To be clear: when I speak of bullying, I don’t mean every time you feel treated badly. We all have bad days – our managers do, too. We’re all human – so are our peers. You don’t have to tolerate bad treatment or behaviours and there are ways to deal with either, but I wouldn’t classify a single or even occasional incident as bullying.

Deliberate, systematic destruction

The bullying I have observed consisted in systematic derogatory treatment of a colleague or several, putting them on impossible missions, changing direction so fast they can’t possibly get anything ‘right’, making them seem ridiculous and incompetent in front of others, and more.

True bullies, over time, aim to systematically destroy others’ confidence, their credibility, reputation, self-esteem, and, as a result, diminish their quality of work and measurable output – creating the perfect grounds for dismissal as the ultimate ‘victory’.

There are, however, a few things you may try to counter bullying that I’ve occasionally seen work.

Be courageous

Have a courageous conversation. It might turn out they don’t mean to bully at all – they just aren’t aware of their style and its impact. At minimum, it’ll put them on their guard that you’re aware of what’s going on and that their behaviour has a negative impact on your morale and engagement. If they are aware enough of their tactics and why they employ these, a respectful, open conversation will at least not worsen the situation.

Quite the contrary: if they applied these obnoxious tactics consciously, to satisfy whatever desire subjugating other people satisfies, confronting them might stop that behaviour. That is, if – and that’s a capital IF – they were concerned about being exposed, having their reputation damaged, or simply lose interest once the victim sees through the game at play. A close friend and former work colleague encouraged me by her example of how she once confronted a bullying manager, to succeed with that courageous approach. By confronting him, she seemed to take his pleasure out of it.

“Have a courageous conversation. It might turn out they don’t mean to bully at all – they just aren’t aware of their style and its impact.”


Manager or HR guidance

Seek guidance from your manager – unless they’re the bully! I’ve enjoyed great managers who got personally involved to help manage difficult situations, as they were truly invested in their team’s success. Admittedly, I also experienced others who would part with encouraging advice but otherwise shy away from the hot situation … especially when the bully was an important business partner or superior to them.

If you enjoy a trusted HR partner, seek their counsel. They’re trained to treat sensitive matters confidentially and have relevant experience to support you. In fairness, most large corporations have thinned out their HR groups and outsourced to external agencies and electronic self-help systems, so that the remaining HR professionals still employed are insanely busy and might not have much time to spare, despite being the ‘people experts’.

Seek external help

If none of the above works, seek external support. This might be an experienced peer you trust to not leak things shared in confidence. It may be a friend or someone else outside your organisation to provide mentorship, or just lend you an ear and their own experiences. There are professional organisations that specialise in supporting bullying and mobbing victims. Or a professional coach, who will help you develop robust self-help strategies tailored to your unique situation.

If your company offers a confidential compliance officer or hotline, you might try there. Call me a sceptic – I’ve never seen that route work out for the individual concerned, in large organisations. It might give you the feeling that your case is being properly reviewed. However, even when there’s a lot of substance, evidence, and witnesses, I’ve not seen those internal regulators ever produce a meaningful case against senior company leaders – not for bullying.

Don’t succumb

The other thing I’ve never seen work, with true bullies, is when the victimised individual plays along trying to meet the ever-changing expectations and to convince the bully that they are up to requirements, after all. Submission might work for a short while but soon the bully will return to, and crank up, their tactics. That seems to satisfy their ego and superiority more than accepting someone’s ‘defeat’.

So, what then can you do if none of the above works, to effectively stop true bullying if ever you have to face it?

Get out!

If none of these approaches work, the only thing I’ve seen materially work is getting ahead of the situation by getting out of that company, or at least that business area or department, to put real distance between yourself and the bullying leader. Because the longer your struggle continues, the more it will feed their desire. And the less you will enjoy going to work in the morning and giving your best for a person and company treating you badly.

As another friend and long-term senior corporate leader reminds me: “A company doesn’t make you, so they can’t break you. Bullies don’t typically go after people who don’t intimidate or scare them professionally. So likely, you’re a rock star. What you’ve brought to the company, what’s allowed you to be successful, that leaves with you. And it’s why you can feel brave enough to move on to a more supportive environment where you can get back to being a rock star.”

So, as long as you feel confident about your skills and professional capabilities, take them elsewhere – especially in today’s employee market. Don’t give the bully the ultimate pleasure of driving you out. They may think so anyway – but this way it’s your decision, not theirs.

For all these reasons, I find it best to stop bullies by leaving them proactively and not giving them the pleasure they’re seeking.

Unless the bully is you …

  • Have a courageous conversation
  • Seek guidance from your manager
  • Seek HR counsel
  • Seek external support by a trusted peer, friend, professional org or coach
  • Consult your company’s compliance officer or hotline
  • Don’t succumb to the bully – it’ll fan their desire
  • Get out – put distance between yourself and the bully
  • GET OUT!


About the author

Oliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.