Dear Collaboration Corner,
My company just went through a major re-org. and round of layoffs. Surprisingly, instead of losing team members, I actually had someone from a different group added to my project. And that was the start of my problems.
“Brian” is one of the most talented creative directors that I’ve ever worked with but he has one problem: he is a bully. He is obnoxious, inconsiderate and imposes his views on everyone. In one meeting, he actually made a colleague cry! (Funnily enough, he works well with remote workers and has no problems with online collaboration). I don’t know the circumstances of his transfer but I do know that his presence on the team has made everyone walk on eggshells. Ironically, our HR director has just been let go so during this transition period, there is little I can do with respect to escalating. With so many people losing their jobs, the last thing I want to do is go to my VP with a petty complaint.
Do you have any suggestions about how to deal with a bully without being labeled too?
Afraid to Speak Up
Dear Afraid to Speak Up,
Thank you for taking the time to write and ask for some help. Coping with bullies in life and especially the workplace is a part of life.
Unfortunately, although most of us outgrow this behavior, some people do not.
In the situation you described, and I will presume Brian is not on any drugs or has issues he masks with meds, Brian is taking advantage of local staff because he can do it in person and knows people will shy away from confrontation in general especially in situations at work which may be seen from the political level of who is higher on the totem pole.
Interestingly, you point out Brian does not do this to those remote, or online, workers implying he knows what works, and doesn’t work, for him. This style of management can be frustrating to those around the individual because of the lack of logic to their actions.
As a contrarian, I believe that while this may not work in every case, it can be helpful to ask Brian preferably with other people around, why he feels the need to act this way or make people cry. The answer, on one hand, can be rather nasty to hear, on the other hand, can be very insightful. Bullies often push people until they fight back, and then leave the person alone because they have gained a greater respect for them. The problem is when the bully takes it as a personal affront and gets angrier or more irrational. You may not know which one you are dealing with, but in this case, I believe you may be facing one that does not want the fight, given Brian leaves online and remote people alone.
Management probably is either aware of his quirks, or is not, again because he knows how to play politics, so this is not the best route. There is perhaps a different way to handle Brian.
When he gives you an assignment or a task make sure you write to him and be precise in what he asked you to verify you understand him. Be very clear and ask any questions you did not think of in your meeting. Do not do anything until he replies with the answers, an ok or yes mail is not enough. This is painful for you but much more for him and by forcing him to be clear and definitive, he will realize no one is working unless he gets his thoughts under control.
If at your next meeting he berates you for something, ask him what part of the email changed and he did not tell you? This is a documentation process which HR uses when they need to build a case for an employee and in your case, this would be helpful as well. Brian, when faced with commitments in writing, which his creative side may not know what to do with, will try to argue to management about you and the team, but you will have the details. At this point, you can bring it to the VP because you and the team have some paper trail for your raising such an issue as an insubordinate employee.
I wish you luck and patience and that your team gets back to enjoyable work soon.