Bushwhacked! (Obstacle #9)

I walk right into it.

Should I have anticipated it? Maybe. It’s happened before. Should I have been better prepared?  Perhaps. Should I defend myself against the attack? I think so…

But I don’t.

I freeze.

Several different thoughts and emotions run through my mind and body as I am hit by verbal punch after punch.  I don’t protest because I believe sounding defensive makes me weak.  I don’t launch a counter attack because there’s no way I win – this isn’t a debate.  And as the ranting continues, I feel that niggling of doubt… the bullies who are really clever, really experienced at the art of ambush know how to find that word or phrase with just enough truth in it to make you pause and think, “Wait, is this true?  Am I a total screw up?”

Afterwards, nursing my psychic wounds, I think of all the smart comebacks and righteous responses… and I am angry at myself for freezing up.  Why do we freeze when when attacked?  Research suggests several ideas that go through our heads in that moment: we don’t want to amplify the attack, we do not want to be ridiculed by how we respond, we worry about not being liked and we don’t want to put our attacker in an uncomfortable position.  Funny, huh?  Even in that moment, we worry about the feelings of our attacker.

I hate this particular obstacle. First, while I am looking at this from a “women in the workplace” angle, let’s be fair and acknowledge that men get bullied and women can be bullies.  It’s not really a gender issue.  But in the case of women, especially in male dominated work places, it’s not easy to climb over or plow through – it requires training.  When I train for my mud runs and obstacle course races, it’s easy to identify what I need to work on.  I dangle then drop from the monkey bars – more arms and shoulders.  I teeter across the balance beam and stumble into the mud pit – more core training.  The traverse wall is consistently a crapshoot – more everything.

How do you train for an ambush – a surprise attack so you can’t anticipate? Maybe you can’t plan for the specific type of obstacle being shoved in your path, but you can train yourself to respond to the general obstacle of the corporate bushwhack.  You can train yourself to break through your stunned frozen state and move to positive action.

  • Fight or flight?  In the case of an ambush, usually neither is effective.  Fighting can escalate an already-tense situation and fleeing the scene allows the bully to try this tactic with you again. You want to put a stop to repeated ambush attacks, so your goal in this moment is to stand still, stay calm and identify the trigger of the ambush.  Assess the obstacle.  What placed this here? How firm is it? How sharp? Once you understand the trigger, you can step back from the burst of negative emotions and make a smarter decision about how you choose to respond.

I have often found that rarely do these attacks have anything to do with our actual performance or actions. It often stems from the attacker’s own insecurities. A former boss used to ambush me when he felt vulnerable, when he perceived himself to be open to criticism by his boss or peers. Once I recognized this trigger, I could sometimes predict the next attack.  And at that point, I was able to step back from taking his attacks personally. This wasn’t about me. This wasn’t even about reality, so there was no point in responding with a protest or defense. Instead, I could move on to other strategies.

  • Focus on the facts – and only the relevant facts. Bullies blend both fact and fiction, which can confuse you marvelously.  What is relevant to the real issue at hand? Is the point of this attack around a specific work issue?  Is it voicing an opinion on an interpersonal relationship? When responding to your attacker, use your newfound calm to address the relevant facts and shift this to a constructive discussion.  Ask questions of your attacker that clarify his or her  thoughts and take some of the personal element out of the attack.  Climb this obstacle carefully, placing your footing on the salient points and avoiding the sharp edges of sarcasm or curtness.

Ambushers aren’t accustomed to being challenged in a poised manner.  By not blustering or muttering half-hearted defenses, and instead calmly but firmly focusing on something factual, you can dissolve the negative energy.  Direct the attacker to the root of the accusation and ask him/her to explain it more fully. This not only puts the attacker – politely and professionally – in the explanatory position, but also and teaches him/her how to treat you (thank you, Eleanor Roosevelt): you are not one to be distracted or confused by blathering but will deal directly with any real issues.

  • Establish your voice. Not just by sticking to the fact and being a voice of reason, but watch your tone and tenor. This impacts the reception of your message. It’s not a gender bias problem – men do it, women do it, children do it… I’m pretty sure my cat does, too.  We are wired to respond to sensual stimulation – often with judgement and prejudice, or put more kindly, with the influence of our past experience.  So when we need our voice to be heard, the actual pitch of our voice makes a difference.  And studies have shown that men do interpret the higher pitched, faster paced voice of a woman to be “emotional” rather than just passionate.*  We can’t necessarily rewire that perception and certainly not in a moment of attack.  Get over that smaller obstacle and pay attention to both what you say and how you say it.

  • Learn to recognize the Kobayashi Maru of attacks.  The famous no-win scenario from Star Trek is a valuable lesson: if you can’t beat it, at least learn to recognize the un-winnable.  If you know the trigger of the attack has nothing to do with you, and if the spray of negativity has no root in a solvable issue (or a real one) then learn to walk away.  Often in these attacks, we are afraid of being perceived as weak… or worse yet, if we don’t defend ourselves the attack must be true.  But there is no point in climbing this obstacle or expending energy breaking it down.

Walking away can be the hardest strategy to deploy.  It can feel like defeat. But it’s not about being the “bigger” or more mature person at that point. It’s about protecting yourself from unwarranted attacks by removing yourself from a no-win situation.

So when walking past this obstacle, how far do you walk?

Changing roles within your organization to put yourself out of the line of fire is one option.  Changing companies altogether is another.  It is a more significant measure but none of us should tolerate a bully at work, and especially if it looks like the perpetrator isn’t going anywhere soon.  Going to your human resources leader also an option, to discuss what might be done and at the very least, raise visibility and awareness around the issue.  Healthy companies and strong executive teams need to address a perpetual bully or they will continue to lose talent.
Whichever path you choose, you still have control. Take it. Throughout life, we will deal with unusual people, complex personalities and unexpected situations. That makes our day so much more interesting.  But that doesn’t mean we let them become obstacles on our path.NB – For your consideration: current statistics** about bullying at work are not optimistic:

  • Over 60% of women have experienced bullying at work
  • Women are the targets of bullies 79% of the time
  • 78% of those bullied leave their place of employment
  • On average, 70% of those bullied ask for help at work (executive management, HR, unions)
  • Success rate in effective resolution after asking for help: 3%

*2012 survey by the consulting firm Flynn Heath Holt.
** 2012 study from WBI

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