But What Can I DO? Workplace Bullying and Bystanders
Lend an ear to shift the balance of power
Oh, there’s Barbara screaming at poor Brenda again. Maybe I’ll go back to my office until she goes away.
I wonder what happened to Mark? He’s very quiet these days. He used to be so enthusiastic about everything.
Wow, is that someone crying in the other stall? I think it’s Tiffany. Poor woman. I bet Greg’s been hitting on her again.
If any of this sounds remotely familiar, you’ve witnessed workplace bullying. If you’re lucky, you haven’t yet been a target. But odds are good that you will either witness or experience for yourself the joys of being smeared, gaslighted, threatened, or harassed by a bully.
Nearly half of all U. S. workers are affected by bullying during their working lives, either being targeted or witnessing abuse as a bystander.
Bystanders generally react by avoiding the situation as much as possible. This is completely understandable. There is probably very little the bystander can do to change the abuse that occurs. Witnesses want to protect themselves from attack, too.
Unfortunately, avoidance leaves the poor target feeling more cast out and alone than ever.
How bystanders can help.
If you see someone at work being targeted by a bully, and you’re not in a position to actually stop the bully, the best thing you can do to help the target is to listen.
I belong to a Facebook group that’s intended for workplace bully targets. All in all, it’s a very supportive group. People from all walks of life find it and join, seeking a friend to turn to who will understand what’s happening to them. Many people in the group try to turn their experience with a bully into a way to help others. They write books, offer courses, run blogs and podcasts. Some members post positive messages of general well-being and support. What I’ve noticed, though, is that the posts that get the most response from members are the ones that ask, “What’s your story?”
Think about it: Who really wants to listen to a work colleague (or friend, or partner) describing in detail the ways in which they’ve been emotionally sabotaged, threatened, and beaten down? And yet, part of the bully’s power is in that secrecy. No one else knows what’s going on. No one knows who’s telling the truth for sure except the bully and the target. Sometimes not even the target can believe what’s happening because it’s irrational and crazy-making. Gaslighting is an extremely effective bullying tactic that leaves targets not knowing how to explain their truth in the face of the bully’s confident lies.
And that’s why a bystander can provide validation, even solace, to the target just by listening to their story.
It may seem like a small thing. Once you actually listen, you’ll find it’s not small at all. There is so much injury and betrayal that’s hidden beneath the surface.
No one wants to be seen as weak or unable to cope with the difficulties of the workplace. So, most targets try to keep calm and carry on, show themselves as professionals. That’s what the target is doing, even though behind the scenes the bully is anything but professional.
When someone listens to the target’s story, that overwhelming burden is shifted the tiniest bit.
The caveat is that you need to listen fully.
Without any suspension of belief.
And without offering unsolicited advice.
Just listen. Listen to the abuse, the injustice, the struggle the target is experiencing. If it’s hard to hear (and it will be), consider how much harder it is to live it day after day. Be prepared to go watch some funny cat videos when you’re done. You’ll need the comfort.
As a bystander, when you make the effort to do this one relatively small thing, I promise it will make a gigantic difference to what the target suffers. It won’t fix anything. The suffering will continue as long as the bully is allowed to keep bullying, or the target manages to leave the bully’s sphere of influence.
But you might give that person enough strength to stand up against the bully one more day.