Workplace Bullies: How to Best the Business Bullies

What should you do when an adult customer or colleague acts like a bully on the playground? How to change your reaction to workplace bullies to change the result. – >

Bullying in workplace can come from co-workers and customers. Solutions from Margaret Ross, Kamaron InstituteUnfortunately, you didn't leave all of the bullies on the playground in junior high. They still exist, only now, they're in fully adult form.

Some of the bullies come in the form of customers, and these are not so affectionately known as "business bullies," or BBs. They can be sarcastic, difficult, and demanding, and they think the world revolves around them. They are the adult equivalent of the kid who pushes others around on the playground, with you as the target. Dealing with them can leave you feeling like you're all alone and vulnerable. But especially if the BB is a customer, you have to learn to deal with the business bully because the success of your business can depend on it. You have to learn in the necessary skills in order to be able to handle him. At the same time, if you do so you can model the proper behavior for others you work with so they can learn to handle these BBs, too. If you do so properly, this can only help your business.

How do the mean kids on the playground become business bullies, then? Well, these people don't magically grow up and mature, learning the appropriate social behaviors along the way. Of course, they often do, but just as often, they somehow become frozen in a time warp and remain stuck in a version of slightly more adult "bully" behavior. If they grow up to become your customer (and sometimes, your biggest customer), you've got a challenge ahead of you.

Of course, the situation isn't new. Business bullies have been around since the beginning of civilized society and are not likely to disappear soon. How do they react?

The Business Bully's Behavior

Most often, the business bully approaches each encounter with a chip on his shoulder, daring you to do something wrong just so he can deride you, or worse. If you don't have a strong constitution yourself, you are likely to be left feeling demoralized and downtrodden by the encounter. What does this behavior look like? Most often, these people are sarcastic and combative. If you work with them on a regular basis, you might also find that they love rumor and conflict. If this goes on for a period of time, it can even escalate to violence, whether physical or simply psychological. One in three workers in United States report that there is regular yelling on the job. And of course, we are all familiar with news reports of severe on-the-job violence resulting in injury and even death.

The top 10 business bully behaviors are included in the table below:

Top Ten Business Bully Behaviors

1. Yelling

2. Throwing or damaging things

3. Ridiculing, sarcasm

4. Interrupting

5. Rumors or gossip

6. Dirty looks

7. Work dumping

8. Cyber bullying (flame email, text, chat)

9. Exclusion

10. Withholding necessary information

Source: Kamaron Institute Workplace/Relationship Survey


Question: Which of the following three choices most accurately reflect what your natural reaction is if you encounter a business bully across the boardroom table?


1. Fight on their level. (Fight)

What this means is that if they attack, you fight right back. If they start the fight, you continue it. Although this may seem beneficial in the short run because you really can "win the argument," in the end, you lose out because you both sunk to their level and have perhaps damaged your business in the process.

2. Shut down. (Freeze)

When the bully begins to posture or bristle and looks like he is aching for a fight, you simply disengage and shut down. Even though you might continue to take notes and participate on one level, you simply "put your fingers in your ears," figuratively speaking, and tune out. You save your time and energy for the customer or colleague who appreciates you and the ideas you have to offer.

3. Give in. (Flight)

When the bully goes on the attack, you simply give in. You're the peacemaker who wants everyone to get along, but more importantly, you want to get the task at hand done. However, what's really true is that not only is the job not getting done, but you are under immense stress and so is everyone else at the table. The situation is not healthy for anyone involved; not only is the customer not getting his or her best from you, but you feel out of control and are not giving your attention to the job at hand as you should be.


Although the above responses function in the short term, they're simply letting bully run the show and are not the healthiest options. There are ways to stay engaged in get the job done. You can't make the bully change, but you can change yourself. In addition, if you work on change yourself, you'll improve your business overall as well. In fact, the Stanford Research Institute says that your ability to deal with people determines your success in making money in any venture you undertake by 87.5%, while only 12.5% comes because of what you know.

1. Don't fight on the bully's level

Maintain a calm demeanor when the bully tries to escalate things. Remember that the situation is not about the bully; it's about your own behavior. If the bully can't engage you, the fight is not going to go anywhere. You can deescalate the situation by asking what can be done to improve things. As open questions, such as, "What do you think is the biggest benefits taking this path?" "What risks can you see we need to plan for before we begin?" If you feel particularly flustered, take notes and take your emotional attention off the situation; get involved in something more analytical. Get the business bully to discuss the subject at hand and take his attention back to the negotiating table; this takes the conflict away.

Remember that you're in a professional situation and that losing your temper or responding in an unprofessional matter will make you look bad, not just the bully. Let the bully dig his own grave. If you must confront, put the confrontation in the context of how you feel rather than what the bully should be doing. "I have a problem with this because...", not, "You behavior is a problem because…."

2. Don't shut down

If you want to deescalate the situation and get back to the business at hand, you need to stay engaged and focused. You can be the catalyst that keeps everyone thinking about what needs to be done instead of turning things into a mudslinging session. Don't hold grudges or bring up past bad behaviors, either. The idea here is that you want the business bully to change; he won't be able to do that if you keep dredging up old grudges. Problem solving is the focus here, as is staying committed to a positive outcome.

Although it might not be fun at first, you'll find as tension eases that it might actually become fun. Regardless, you'll get more done in a relaxed atmosphere than you will in a tense one.

3. Don’t give in; plan ahead

If you know that the bully is likely to try to start a conflict, you can plan ahead to deescalate the situation before it ever occurs. By doing so, you'll be prepared when you see the situation about to get underway, so that you can react coolly and appropriately. Don't buy into the business bully's dramatics, but stay professional. If he interrupts you, say, "Let me finish, please." If you get to a point where you can’t take anymore without blowing up yourself, do a short recap of the discussion and excuse yourself, saying that it you'll get back to him. Thank him for his time and for sharing his ideas. Then exit gracefully, congratulating yourself because you didn't give in and respond on his level.

It's perhaps most important to remember that you're likely going to experience resistance from the business bully to this behavioral change in you. However, as you continue, the business bully will get used to it and will eventually have no choice but to accept it. Even better, as you continue to model the behavior you want to see in him, he may actually begin to do so. This is indeed hard to do, but as you practice, you'll get more skilled at it.

Margaret Ross, an education and workplace relationship expert, is President of the Kamaron Institute and the author of Making Business Work and the Good Finder series for children. Ross is also the host of the Telly Award winning television program, Success Class. For more information please visit

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