The Pitfalls of Complying and Avoiding in Workplace Bullying

Many people who are subject to workplace bullying use the well intentioned strategies of complying and avoiding, both of which are understandable behaviours to use, but neither of which is a wise choice in the long run.

Like Comment

While I take the view that bullies are always 100% responsible for their behaviour, the repeated use of avoiding and complying by targets does not serve their highest, best interests and can result in them becoming stuck in a bullying dynamic.

Complying is the desire to submit as a way of getting through a challenging encounter with a bully. Targets who submit often do so in an attempt to preserve their connection with the bully. They hope that doing what the bully wants will enable them to keep the relationship as viable as possible. The desire to retain some form of connection with a workplace bully is understandable, but there is a difference between:

  • Wanting to preserve a working relationship with a non-bullying, but challenging, colleague.
  • The strategy of compliance or submission towards a workplace bully.


The former makes complete sense, no matter how difficult it may be in practice. The latter isn’t wise. A bullying colleague is a dangerous person to want to preserve connection with.

Avoiding is motivated by the desire to prevent potentially overwhelming levels of anxiety and fear which result from encounters with the bully. Some targets feel paralysed and disabled when in the presence of bully. To avoid feeling this toxic mixture of incapacity and fear they avoid situations where it is likely they will encounter the bully, and avoid confronting abusive behaviour during or after an encounter with the bully.

Every time the bully’s aggressive behaviour goes unchallenged, they receive the message that they can continue to attack as and when they want to, and there will be no consequences for them to deal with. For many of targets, the fear of confronting is actually a fear that, if they do confront, the bully will retaliate even more powerfully and destroy them. And it is quite true that an ineffective, emotional confrontation won’t go well for most targets, because a skilled bully will hear the wobble in their voice and turn their emotion back onto them.

Avoidance and compliance have their place as strategies for dealing with workplace bullying – but only in the short term, as one-off methods of managing the surprise and shock of being bullied. If they become established ways in which the target handles the bully they become counter-productive, making it straightforward for the bully to bully.

However, the good news is that a skilled, clean and clear confrontation will alter the bullying dynamic at the time of an attack. A skilful rejoinder results in the bully going onto the back foot, and the balance of power between the target and the bully alters in the favour of the target.

Learning how to confront bullying behaviour safely and skillfully is a key goal for people vulnerable to attack. Develop your skills by:

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