We’re commonly called in to “deal with” bully behavior in the workplace. The requests sound like:

  • Rita needs some training because she’s a bully
  • I need you to coach Jamal to stop being a bully
  • Our culture needs help because some of our leaders are bullies
  • Everyone thinks Joe is a bully so he needs some coaching

Given October is Bullying Prevention month, I’m sharing my point of view about bullying in the workplace and beyond (meaning schools, social media, community groups, families, etc.) Below are my top five recommendations for working with bully behavior both in response to bully behavior and as prevention strategies.

#1: Understand the birthplace of bully behavior

Bully behavior is born from shame. When people experience the emotion of shame or are shame prone, bully behavior is a natural side effect. Hurt people, hurt people.

“When we’re hurting, either full of shame or even just feeling the fear of shame, we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors and to attack or shame others.” – Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

Why is understanding this helpful? For me, this insight helped me respond to the behavior rather than the person. It also helps me cultivate compassion for the person knowing that they’re hurting.

That doesn’t mean responding to bully behavior by saying things like “you must be feeling shame” or “you feel bad about yourself don’t you.” It also doesn’t mean we accept or tolerate the behavior. There’s a way to address bully behavior in a way that fosters accountability and behavior change (see my recommendations below.)

#2: Set boundaries

Setting boundaries means identifying and communicating what’s okay and not okay. I recommend using specific and behavior-based language.

Examples might include:

  • It’s okay to be frustrated, but it’s not okay to call people names.
  • It’s okay to disagree with so and so, but it’s not okay to raise your voice.
  • It’s okay to be upset about a decision, but it’s not okay to walk out and slam the door.
  • It’s okay to point out hurtful behavior, it’s not only to refer to someone as a bully.

One of the concepts we teach in Dare to Lead™ is clear is kind. Setting boundaries using specific and behavior based language is way clearer than saying “be kind” or “don’t be a bully” (which I see and hear a lot.)

#3: Stop calling people bullies

Too often our instinct as humans is to shame people who engage in bullying behaviors. Using shame to fight bullying is not only ineffective in terms of getting the behavior to stop, it’s like preaching no violence and then punching someone for punching someone else. That’s a vicious, never-ending cycle of violence.

 To be clear name calling is bully behavior. Calling someone a bully or even using that language in policy, procedure and even awareness campaigns is not only shaming, it’s not useful.

 Instead use the phrase “bully behavior.” You’re more likely to help someone change their behavior if you can point out the ways in which their behavior is hurting someone rather than pointing out who they are as a person is hurtful.

 To recap, calling someone a bully is name calling. Name calling is bully behavior. Be a role model for others by not using that language yourself or in communications of any kind.

#4: Use empathy and skill building to stop bully behavior

It’s been proven again and again that the antidote to shame is empathy. In our Daring Greatly™ retreat and Dare to Lead™ program we discuss putting shame in a petri dish with judgment and watching shame grow exponentially. However, if you take the same petri dish and douse shame with empathy it can’t survive. Empathy is the antidote to shame.

It’s important to teach people how to respond effectively to bully behavior. This can be in the context of “dealing with difficult behavior” versus “dealing with bullies” or “dealing with difficult people” (see recommendation three.)

#5: Make courage skills part of your culture

When we teach people skills to navigate vulnerability and shame, we create a culture that fosters courage, learning, connection, and belonging. These elements help keep bully behaviors at bay by giving people different ways to interact and engage with each other. It also creates clarity and awareness about the impact of our words and actions.

By investing in courage skills, leaders are intentionally creating an environment where people feel seen, heard and respected and are encouraged to see, hear and respect others. Based on the research, people who feel seen, heard and respected are less likely to engage in bully behavior or are quick to change behavior when they realize what they’re doing and why.


There you have it. My five recommendations for working with and preventing bully behavior in the workplace (and beyond.) Of course if you need support implementing any of what’s discussed here, let’s talk! Schedule a call today.