5 Strategies to Handle Bullies at Work

April 25, 2016

Have you ever felt bullied at work and regretted how you handled the situation? Prepare yourself before it happens again with these proven strategies:

1.Take control 

Bullies excel at preemptive attacks that leave their targets flustered, defensive and tongue-tied.

Surprise your bully by turning the table on the bully with a question. If your bully asks, “Where’d you come up with this ridiculous idea?” respond with a question such as, “What did you have in mind instead?”  If the bully says, “You look like a dog,” ask “What breed?”

The moment your bully answers your question, guess what? You’ve taken control of the conversation.

2. Engage

Bullies love to play the shame/blame game, wielding demeaning comments as weapons.  Don’t swallow the insult garbage that comes your way, because once you do, it becomes your garbage.

If your bully says, “You have a fat butt,” ask, “And that matters to you how?” By not engaging, you make it clear to the bully and anyone else listening that the bully’s insult belongs to the bully and not you.

3. Set limits

A bully’s idea of give and take is he or she takes and you give. If you work with a bully, their “take” won’t stop until you say “so far and no further.”

The trick to effective limit-setting: Remain professional and let the bully know what you will do before you add what you won’t. If your bully coworker repeatedly interrupts you, asking that you fix their computer issue “this minute!,” let them know, “as soon as I get this report done, I’ll show you, so you’ll be able to handle it on your own next time.”

4. Develop your arsenal for public smack downs 

Bullies love insulting targets in front of others, knowing that watching eyes add to the target’s humiliation.

You’ll be better able to handle unexpected bully attacks if you develop a list of responses that work like Kevlar, deflecting the bully’s insults. I like, “nice try,” “pardon me?”  and“is that the best you can do?”

5. Gather your wits

When a bully first attacks or threatens you, you may physically react by holding your breath or breathing rapidly and shallowly. When that happens, you momentarily lose easy, simultaneous access to both left and right mental hemispheres.

To handle bullying, you need the ability to think and to put your thoughts into words, functions housed in the left hemisphere, along with your ability to react and develop creative approaches, housed in the right hemisphere.

With coastline breathing, the strategy of noticing your process of breathing, you recover your ability to simultaneously assess left and right hemispheres. Try it right now by noticing when you next inhale, the transitional pause, your exhalation and the following transitional pause. When you try, you’ll notice it relaxes you and leaves you better able to handle the bully’s salvo without reacting.

Put these tactics to work, and you’ll find yourself on  the winning side the next time a bully tries to cut you down.

© 2016, Lynne Curry, author of Solutions and Beating the Workplace Bully, AMACOM, 2016.


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About The Author

Dr. Lynne Curry, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, founded The Growth Company, Inc., a management consulting, training, human resources and organizational strategy firm. Curry has provided more than 55,000 consulting projects to more than 3,700 organizations. She is the author of Beating the Workplace Bully, AMACOM, 2016.


  1. avatar

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    […] “kiss up” and “kick down” covert bullies, shape shifters show their “claws” to those who get in their way, steal credit for others’ […]

  3. avatar

    Hello Lynne
    What a great article with some really time suggestions on managing a bully. I have recently been through the most horrendous work situation with a bully that caused a mass exodus in the company. Unfortunately, I naively buried me head and worked harder at trying to make the situation work.
    I did not know where to turn to get advice. I was tempted to sue, because this was the worst example of bullying I have witnessed. I would love to know where does one turn to in situations as these? By the way, I documented and sent HR these complaints and nothing was done except I lost my job.
    I am very interested in unraveling this knot.
    Appreciate if my name is NOT published.

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