Workplace mobbing

Chris and Ross are furious. They’ve both applied for the team leader role. But the job has been given to Brett.

Brett is the youngest member of the team. To Chris and Ross, this means he wasn’t entitled to a promotion. Rather than expressing their anger openly, they resort to passive aggressive tactics. These include deliberately making mistakes, pretending to forget important deadlines and muttering ‘care factor zero’ when Brett talks to the team.

Here’s how we’d help Brett deal with this problem by responding assertively. You can use the same strategies to handle passive aggressive bullies at work.

1. Reboot your personal power

Dealing with passive aggression is making Brett feel powerless. He needs to restore his sense of personal power. He can do this by using reframing techniques. For example, he can make a list of what he does have control over, reword any negative self-talk he is using or interpret Chris and Ross’ behaviour as sign of powerlessness.

2. Manage upwards

Before challenging Chris and Ross, Brett needs to build a support network. He should brief his manager on the situation. His briefing should end with a request for support. For example, Brett could say:

  • I’d like your support dealing with Chris and Ross
  • If this escalates, I’d like you to mediate
  • I’m planning to act on this. Can I count on backup from you?

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3. Divide and conquer

Chris and Ross are using workplace mobbing tactics. Their ‘courage’ stems from taking combined action. Brett needs to separate his opponents and set up individual meetings. During these meetings, Brett will describe specific examples of each person’s unacceptable behaviour. He will have a copy of the company’s bullying and harassment policy with him. Brett will use this to frame the conversation as being about acceptable behaviour – not about him.

4. Make them accountable

Finally, Brett should make Chris and Ross responsible for the consequences of their behaviour. The ‘illusion of choice’ technique is used to do this. Chris and Ross have a choice about how they behave in future. Brett can describe each choice, along with its consequences. For example “You can choose to behave respectfully in future, which means the matter won’t go any further. Or you can continue behaving disrespectfully, in which case I will report what’s happening to the group manager.”

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