Confronting Bullying at Work: Effective Strategies

Do you know the adage “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family”? Well, for the most part, the same goes for your coworkers. At work we are thrown into teams and cohorts of people that perhaps we’d never choose to hang out with on the weekend, or at all for that matter. And yet, despite a lack of affinity for these people, you’re required to not only get along with them, but also work with them to accomplish important projects. As if the work you were required to do wasn’t challenging enough, throw in diverse personalities, unique experiences, and bad behaviors, and it’s a miracle any work gets done at all.

This is exactly why we call our skills crucial. They aren’t just nice-to-have ideas on how to get along; they are essential to positive and productive social interactions and teamwork. 

So if a colleague was to be particularly challenging to work with or demonstrated bully behaviour that impacted team morale, how could you address this?

Our research on verbal violence and bullying behavior in the workplace shows that people who demean or verbally abuse their colleagues often aren’t held accountable. Others assume “This is how they are, and nothing I do or say will change them or their behaviour.” We choose to say nothing, stay away, avoid working with them, and vent to others (including your favourite advice column). These non-responses do nothing to help someone change their behaviour, but instead provide silent endorsement that their behaviour is acceptable. Contrary to the popular saying,  Silence isn’t golden, it’s permission.

As a starting point, we encourage speaking up and highlighting to said colleague the impact of both the intended and unintended consequences of their behaviour. Often these colleagues can be unaware of their behaviour and the impact it has on those around them. Now, whether they choose to hear and receive the message is up to them, but you can do your part to try and change the social dynamic of your team.


Before you speak up, check-in with yourself to get clear about the story you’re telling yourself about your colleague. How are they challenging to work with? How do they impact team morale? How do they exhibit bully behaviour? While these behaviours are unsavoury, there could be another side. Consider that it’s possible your view of your colleague has been unfairly tainted. For example, maybe it’s not these behaviours, instead, they have a dry sense of humour, are eager to share ideas but struggle to clearly express their views, and simply speaks up when they disagree with decisions they see as harmful to the organisation. When presented this way, these qualities could be beneficial to a team. However, if you consider this other perspective and still decide their actions are harming morale and should be confronted, the act of challenging the story you are telling about them will help you approach the conversation more compassionately.


When someone behaves badly, most of us suffer in silence because all we consider are the risks of speaking up. Those who speak up and hold others accountable tend to do the opposite. They think first about the risks of NOT speaking up. If you choose to say nothing, your colleague will continue to alienate their teammates and destroy morale. Work—and any joy around doing that work—is unlikely to go well in this situation. The risks to both relationships and results are high. So, when you head into the conversation and a wave of doubt comes crashing in, think about those risks and proceed with confidence.


As you approach your colleague about their behaviour, stick closely to the detailed facts. Strip out any judgmental or provocative language that will only elicit defensiveness. For example, don’t say, “Your style really irritates everyone on the team.” Instead lead with facts and be specific. It might sound like, “You often question the decisions that the team agreed on and when you do that it derails momentum, resulting in a lot of unnecessary work, and some are starting to think you don’t trust them.”


You might find that your colleagues behaviour is triggered by a legitimate concern. For example, maybe they feel like they aren’t being included in the original decision-making or that people don’t trust their experience. Should they raise such concerns like that, validate it while also making it clear it needs to be handled better. “If you don’t feel like the team is consulting you appropriately, can you request we include you sooner in the process rather than challenging the decision after it has been made?”


Assume your colleague isn’t fully aware of how their behaviour affects others. Let them know what the consequences are when they react the way they do, challenge direction, and interrupt people on the team. Share how those behaviours affect you, others, customers, work projects, etc. Give them a chance to see the impact of their behaviour—to results, relationships, and their own reputation.


Let them know how you expect to be treated in the future and how you expect everyone on the team to act so you can work in a positive and productive environment. Ask for your colleagues’ commitment. Encourage them to seek training, or maybe your company could provide it. You can also let them know about intended consequences that will occur if the behaviour continues. Perhaps you’ll speak up again, perhaps you’ll get others involved, or perhaps you’ll have to file a complaint with HR.

Holding people accountable is one of the most challenging Crucial Conversations you will encounter. It puts you in a position of vulnerability and discomfort. And for most people, our past attempts have us concerned that we may do it clumsily—we’ll either be too emotional, too harsh, or too timid. But with these tips, hopefully you can tackle this sensitive issue with more confidence and poise so you can preserve both results and relationships.

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