I gave a speech last week to a group of leaders from the legal industry. The audience was filled with the people who support the lawyers: people from HR, marketing, finance, etc. I was talking about the importance of productive conflict when an audience member asked the question that everyone had been thinking about. “How do we have conflict productively with partners who wield significant power and sometimes bully those of us with less power?” I thought I’d share my answer here.

Change Your Mindset

Stop Giving the Bully Power

Partners in law firms, like all other powerful, intimidating creatures, are human just like the rest of us. Certainly, they have considerable power that comes from their ownership stake in the firm, but a significant amount of their power comes from you. When you cower, they feel stronger. When you choose not to speak up, they can continue under the illusion that they are always right. When you decide not to challenge (or even question) anything that comes from their mouths, you give them more power.  The longer they go unchecked, the more powerful they become. Don’t give them any more power than they actually have.

Think of the Bully as Weak, Rather than Strong

Another mistake that you likely make is thinking of the bully as strong and formidable when really, the bully is probably lacking self-confidence and trying to feign strength with a lot of huffing and puffing. The moment you recognize that, the bully loses their grip on you. If your reaction to being yelled at is “wow, she must be really feeling out of her element today,” your empathy (or even pity) shrinks the over-sized monster into a mere mortal.

Remember that He is Weak Without You

Another thing to remember is that the big, powerful, impressive lawyer who can deliver closing arguments that rival a Shakespearean monologue probably can’t work the photocopier. He can’t balance the books, can’t handle the drama of employee relations, and can’t run the IT network. In essence, that powerful person you’re so afraid of can’t survive without you. You’re so focused on the power he has over you that you forget the power you have over him.

Change Your Game Plan

Once you have a healthier and more balanced perspective on the true power you and the bully share, then you can start behaving differently to get a better outcome.

Ask for Help

When you want to challenge or disagree with a bully, you have to do it in a way that allows your bully to lead from strength. The easiest way to do this is by asking for help. When the bully suggests that you host a client event right in the middle of your busiest season, try responding, “I need your help. I’m trying to find a date that won’t compromise our client delivery. When does your workload start to drop off?” Other effective techniques include asking the bully to share his thinking, “Walk me through your thinking on who will stop with case work to organize the event?”

Give the Bully a Healthy Path to Power

Bullies climb out of the pit of low self-esteem by stepping on the people beneath them. Your job is to give them something better to climb on. Give your bully a constructive way to earn power and she won’t have to get it by tromping on people. There are many ways to do this; one that works with senior leaders is to play to their legacy. You can do this by asking the bully to teach you something—maybe giving a lunch and learn where she shares her wisdom.

Use Psychology to Your Advantage

Try reinforcing the behavior you want from the bully and ignoring the behavior you don’t want. If your bully starts tearing a strip off someone, drop your eye contact; stop smiling. If he dominates the conversation, subtly withdraw your attention. When he behaves more appropriately, lavish him with smiles and attention. You don’t even need to say a word about the behavior itself, just repeatedly reward the good stuff and ignore the bad.

Phone a Friend

I’ve talked about this technique before. When you have to deal with a really aversive person who cuts you down with devastating one-liners, find a friend and make it a game. Instead of withering each time your bully says, “I’ve seen better work from college interns,” you score a point and your friend has to buy coffee. You reciprocate when your buddy’s chosen line gets used against him. Now instead of dreading the intern line, you’re looking forward to it. I know it’s silly, but I promise you that it works.

Dealing with a bully at work is terrible, but don’t make it worse by inflating how much power the person actually has. Shift your mindset and then you’ll have the wherewithal to try some of these coping strategies. Good luck!

Further Reading

How to Work for an Abusive Leader

How to Deal with an Over-powering Person on Your Team

How to Disagree with Your Boss

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