I used to work with a man named Josh, whose mother loves to tell a story about a time in high school when one of Josh’s younger brothers was being pretty seriously bullied. When Josh heard what was happening, he cornered the bully in the locker room, pushed him hard up against the locker, and set him straight: “If you ever bother my brother again, you’ll regret it.” And it worked. No more bullying.
Isn’t there something so satisfying about that story? On some level, isn’t that exactly what you’d like God to do for you when people pick on you? I sure would. But the hard truth is that most bullying stories—especially the ones that happen at work—don’t end that way.
Mine certainly didn’t.
Battered and Bullied
Almost two years ago, my daughter Annie contracted a serious stomach condition called gastroparesis. For months we were in and out of various hospitals, and there were times when I honestly worried that I might lose her. During the course of her illness I continued to work remotely, but I drastically limited my travel. Most of the people I work with were very accommodating, but not all of them. One coworker in particular, who happened to be overseeing a project I was involved with, gave me a very hard time. She didn’t know or understand how serious Annie’s condition was, and she felt that my physical absence was a sign of apathy. She made it known that she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t “putting in the effort” that everyone else was. In fact, I was fully committed to bringing value to the team and working diligently to do so. But she kept pushing me to “be there,” and finding ways to point out to me and others when I wasn’t.
I felt battered, angry, and guilty, wondering if maybe I should be doing more. I prayed every day that God would somehow soften this woman’s heart. Feeling bullied, I wanted a “big brother” God to swoop in and set her straight.
He didn’t. She never changed. She never let up.
This isn’t a story where I “taught the bully a lesson” or saw her changed into a “better” person.
What God did was work in my heart. As I cried out to him for help, I felt a sense of peace and resolve, realizing, I am where God wants me to be. I am bringing good value to my company. It doesn’t matter that she is complaining about me. She is not my audience. My coworkers are not my audience. I have an audience of exactly one, and I am called to serve him with my whole heart.
I had to lay aside my pride, my hurt feelings, and my sense of injustice. I had to keep working hard and trusting that God would be honored in it. When I look back at that time now, I’m honestly not entirely sure how I kept my head above water. But I can see all the ways that God buoyed me.
Practice These Principles
If you’re getting bullied at work, that’s where you need to start. Repeat after me: “I belong to God, and I am working to serve him.” Then, from there, you can move forward. As you do, keep these principles in mind:
• It feels personal, but it’s probably not. When someone is pushing you around at work, it may feel like she’s out to get you personally. But in most cases, workplace bullying isn’t personal at all. Usually the “office bully” is pushy, loud, and abrasive, not because she dislikes you or wishes to harm you, but because that’s simply how she’s learned to relate to other people at work. It’s bad behavior, to be sure, but it’s not really about you or who you are. If you’re able to place bullying behavior in this context, it’s easier to put hurt feelings aside and start getting strategic about how you interact with this person.
Sometimes, what feels like “bullying” comes about as the result of a misunderstanding. If my coworker had really understood how sick Annie was, she might not have given me such a hard time. I didn’t see it at the time, but now I realize that I probably could have done more to help her appreciate my situation and exactly what I was contributing.
• Know when to make a strategic retreat. The classic advice for dealing with a bully is to be strong and stand up to him. Sometimes though, the strong and smart thing is to disengage and step back. Remember that most workplace bullies aren’t at it for fun. They throw their weight around because they want or need something. So, rather than react in the moment, create some space for yourself to figure out what that “something” is. Then you can go back to him with a cooler head and a more considered approach. By then, he will likely have a cooler head as well.
• Stay focused. Don’t be distracted by bullying. Represent yourself and Christ well by continuing to do excellent work. I know this is harder than it sounds. Getting picked on just feels icky, and it can eat you up inside. Hurt feelings, injured pride, and a desire for retribution can cloud your heart and muddle your thinking.
To stay focused, you must constantly come back to what Jesus described as the foremost command: “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Pray that God would be at work in the situation. Pray that he would change it. But know that nothing is more important than loving and serving your God—not your comfort, your career, or the respect of your peers.
• Real harassment is not okay. The kind of bullying I’ve been talking about here is not harmless, but it doesn’t rise to the level of real harassment either. It’s hard to say exactly where that line is for everyone, but if there is personal animus involved, if you are unable to do your work, or if someone seems to be acting outside of her own interests to hurt or embarrass you, consider taking further measures. Start by keeping a careful record of everything that happens, including the date, time, what was said or done, and who witnessed it. Print out pertinent emails and save phone messages. It sounds a bit dramatic, but these steps may be critical later. Before going to your boss or to HR, make an effort to resolve the situation directly with the person privately and as respectfully as possible. If the bully’s behaviors doesn’t change, it’s time to file a formal complaint or look for a new job (or both).
Does that mean letting the bully “win”?
Because whatever she is “winning” at, you are not running that race. Bullies will likely always be a part of your working life. You can’t change them, but you are not helpless. You have the freedom through Christ to make the right choices for you and your family, whatever that may be. The more you ground yourself in your identity in Christ, the less power a bully (or anyone else) can have over you.