3 Principles for Combating Bullying

My coaching work and writing on bullying is about recovery from the psychological impact of workplace and team bullying, and how to protect yourself at the time of an attack. Here are some of the key principles I work from.

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The first principle is that workplace bullying – whether it happens 1-to-1 or in a team setting – is about power. It is about one person, the bully, seeking to remove power from another person, their target, so that they can retain that control for themselves.  While the methods employed by different bullies are varied and individual to that bully, the underlying aim is always the same: to remove either personal power, reputational influence and/or organisational status from the target and retain those forms of control for themselves.  A bully who attacks a target's personal power is trying to undermine their relationship with their inner self: their sense of their own value as a person, their self-belief and self-confidence. A bully who attacks a target's reputational influence is trying to undermine their relationships with co-workers, their credibility and their reputation by causing colleagues to think less well of them as a person or their work quality. A bully who attacks their target's organisational status is trying to undermine their target's ability to perform their job or carry out their role effectively. A skilled bully will target all three forms of power simultaneously, an experience which can be overwhelming for a target who does not know how to protect themselves or mitigate the impact of a campaign.

The second principle I work from is that the target has more influence in the moment of attack than they often realise.  There is no blame in this principle at all.  Targets are often distressed, fearful and often paralysed in the moment of attack.  They feel intimidated and on the back foot, and try to get the bullying encounter over with as soon as possible, often resorting to the well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective strategies of compliance and avoidance.  Compliance means doing what the bully wants to get the incident over with as soon as possible.  Avoidance means not confronting the bullying out of the fear that to do so would result in an escalation of aggression.  The short term use of these strategies can be beneficial in that they create respite for the target. But if they are the only strategies a target uses, they can work against their best interests because their use makes it easier for the bully to bully.  I coach clients to recognise the choices they do have at the time of an attack, however limited they may in some instances, and to exercise at least one of them. This is a powerful thing to do because what a target says and does at the time of an attack influences the way the bullying dynamic evolves between them and the bully from that moment onwards. It also means that the target can leave that encounter without feeling as distressed as they do when they behaved powerlessly. Finding something to say which puts the issues back to the bully, takes the spotlight off the target and, with dignity, puts it onto the bully interrupts the bullying dynamic the bully is trying to create, sometimes sufficiently for that encounter, sometimes decisively for that campaign.   Bullies are on the look-out for signs of vulnerability and confusion which they can exploit, and often desist when they realise that the person they have targeted is not a straightforward person to attack.  

The third principle is that it is quite possible, with some dedication and know-how, to regain both your self-confidence and self-belief after a campaign, or indeed while a campaign is on-going.  I take the view that confidence is a learned skill, and that with a little effort and encouragement, even targets who have been severely impacted by bullying can re-gain their self-belief, no matter how far it has plummeted due to being successfully targeted.

Learning how to use the influence available to you under pressure is a key goal for people vulnerable to being successfully bullied. Here are some resources you might like to consult to help you develop that skill:

  • Read my new book Bullying in Teams: How to Survive It and Thrive for input on how to retain your dignity when you are attacked in a team situation, stand up for team colleague who is being bullied in front of others, prevent a bully from controlling your team, and how to develop a bully-proof mindset.


Aryanne Oade

chartered psychologist, executive coach, author and publisher, Oade Associates Ltd

Hello and welcome to my blog. I specialize in handling challenging workplace dynamics, successfully working from the premise that the additional resources you seek are already within you. My aim is to be a catalyst so you can turn areas where you feel under-resourced or vulnerable into skills and strengths, become resilient in the face of adversity, and develop a life and work experience you are passionate about. Working from the evidence-base of psychology, and over twenty-five years’ experience, clients tell me they experience my coaching and books as insightful, practical, non-judgmental and empathic. My work on recovery from bullying and bully-proofing has been featured in leading publications such as The Independent, Irish Independent (Sunday), Psychologies, Good Housekeeping and Marie Claire. Learn more at www.oadeassociates.com