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How to beat the workplace bully in your medical office

Loss of good employees, low morale, and communication breakdowns caused by office bullies are costing your medical practice plenty, says Dr. Lynne Curry, Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for Avitus, a national firm with offices coast to coast

According to Curry, more than 65 million American workers have either been bullied on the job or seen their coworkers bullied.

“It is psychological violence. It’s being aggressively manipulated to either act in a way you don’t want to act, or having yourself forced to confront someone in a way you don’t want to, or to cower and not confront,” says Curry.

Many people bully sometimes, but to fit the definition, a bully’s behavior follows a pattern of repeated and intentional manipulation.

3 types of bullying

Three types of bullying are verbal, physical and situational.

Verbal bullying includes ridiculing, insulting, name-calling, slandering, making the target the butt of mean jokes, and abusive, offensive comments.

Physical bullying includes pushing, shoving, kicking, poking, tripping, making obscene gestures, and assault.

Situational bullying includes sabotaging coworkers, deliberate humiliation, and deliberate interference.

7 types of bullies

According to Curry, there are seven types of bullies, including:

The angry, aggressive jerk: This person blames, demeans, belittles, name-calls and loves finding fault in others. He or she saps other people’s energy and ruins office morale.

The scorched earth fighter: This person pulls out all the stops, is cutthroat and believes it’s not enough that he or she wins, but that you lose.

The silent grenade: This person always threatens to explode. When he looks at you, his jaw tightens or his face reddens and people will think “Oops, I’d better not go any further” out of fear of being caught in the impending explosion.

The shape-shifter: This individual shows one face to the boss and another face to peers or underlings. He is often charming to those he seeks opportunities from or those from whom he seeks to take advantage.

The narcissist: This person lives by the mantra ‘It’s me and only me.’ Narcissists feel inherently superior to others and aren’t concerned about what happens to anyone they walk over. They feel entitled to win and play by their rules. Narcissists do not handle criticism well.

The wounded rhino: This person is perhaps the deadliest type of bully, other than the scorched earth fighter. Like a real rhinoceros, he or she can gallop, gore and attack with vengeance. Wounded rhinos are forceful, mean-spirited, authoritarian, ill-tempered when disturbed, and uncaring. Whereas the scorched earth fighter wants to eliminate, wounded rhinos strive to dominate others.

The character assassin: This person can defame without remorse and tell destructive stories about others. This type of bully often engages in cyberbullying.

How bullies choose their victims

Curry says a person can become a bully’s victim simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Other catalysts include:

  • Having something the bully wants, such as a promotional opportunity that you have and he or she wants, or having an admirable reputation.
  • Signaling that you are an easy target.
  • Putting up with bad treatment.
  • Giving away your power by allowing the bully to deal with you in a certain way that gives him or her the upper hand.
  • Ignoring the warning signs. For example, someone cuts you down and then says ‘just kidding’ and you don’t know how to handle the situation.

The dynamics of confrontation

Curry says a bully operates by sending a salvo and waits for the reaction of the person he or she is targeting.

“The solution is to not react, not cower, not go toe-to-toe, but to change how you react.”

If you are confronted by a bully, you need to concentrate on breathing. Many people momentarily stop breathing when they are confronted, especially if the bully is yelling at them.

Concentrating on your breathing allows you to access both the left hemisphere of your brain, which controls logic, analysis, problem solving, language and sense of future consequences, and the right hemisphere, controlling reaction, emotion, intuition, creativity and color.

“If you breathe shallowly and rapidly (when a bully confronts you), you will temporarily lose access to your left hemisphere,” says Curry.

If that happens, you may actually lose your ability to talk or you may blurt out something that you could later deeply regret saying. Concentrating on your breathing can save the day. Curry adds that while concentrating on your breathing, you can picture the image of a happy child or puppy, or a favorite place you love visiting.

“One of the most important things you can do is to make sure that you don’t collude with the bully. You don’t want to allow a bully to have an outpost in your mind. You are the landlord of your mind. However, sometimes a bully’s poison seeps in and they start to control you at a very deep level because they attack your core confidence and they feed off your reaction,” says Curry.

Bullies love to watch others stammer, turn red or white, and shake.

“What you want to do is not allow the bully in there (in your mind). How do you do that? You go to (your) mental Kevlar.”

By this, Curry means reinforcing how you are going to respond. If you are confronted by a bully, you need to think about:

  • What’s going on here?
  • Is this how I want to be treated?
  • Is this situation/bully worth taking on?

Curry says it’s important to not judge yourself for letting a bully get to you for some time without doing anything about it. You didn’t create the situation. The important thing is that you do take action from that point on.

Choosing your responses

“You need to ground yourself and shift the energy by choosing an alternate focus or frame of response,” she says. “You may have more power than you are aware of.”

But you must be willing to exit your comfort zone and say, ‘You need to stop that right now.’

Other effective responses include saying, ‘I’m not playing’, ‘Nice bait’, or ‘Nice try.’

Curry says such responses change the energy dynamic because you are stepping into your own power while taking power away from the bully.

Questioning a bully is also a fabulous tool for changing the dynamic when a bully tries you on.

“When you ask a question, you sidestep bullying,” she says.

For example, if you are in a meeting and a bully belittles your work contribution or something you say with a statement such as ‘This is really confusing,’ you can ask: ‘So what part of it were you understanding and where did you get lost?’

Other effective questions include: ‘Pardon me?’, ‘What was your point?’ and ‘Is that the best you’ve got?’

Why don’t bullies just stop it?

Curry says bullies actually are the center of their own universes. Their own ambitions are paramount to them.

“They don’t have the same sense of, ‘Oh my goodness—how does what I say impact another person?'”

They were raised to be aggressive and self-absorbed and have no internal brakes. If victims don’t apply their own brakes, Curry says the bully will roll right over them.

You might expect kind and fair coworkers to jump to your defense if they heard you being bullied, but Curry says, “The reality is that other people run for cover. Frankly it’s not their fight.”

You need to develop your own strategy and handle the situation so well that others will realize exactly what’s going on. In doing so, Curry says you will beat the bully at his own game.

According to Curry, there are three truths about bullies. These are:

  • You cannot expect a bully to “go away” and stop bothering you on his or her own.
  • You cannot ignore a bully. If you do nothing, the problem will escalate.
  • Being nice to the bully will fail for you.

Traps to watch out for

If a bully is targeting you, you should avoid the traps of denying what is happening, minimizing the situation, or wondering what you did to provoke it.

“Don’t look the other way or downplay the bully’s behavior,” she warns.

Here are some other don’ts:

  • Don’t expect a bully to change.
  • Don’t try to plead with or appease a bully.
  • Don’t swallow a bully’s judgments.
  • Don’t stoop to a bully’s level, by, for example, screaming back at him if he screams at you.
  • Don’t let a bully isolate you. For example, if you enter a lunch room and a bully says something nasty to you, the worst thing you can do is leave the room.


  • Realize your right to protest bad behavior by others.
  • Say: I realize what you are doing. Stop now.
  • Act, don’t react.
  • If a bully falsely accuses you of something in a group setting, call the bully out.

What a manager can do against bullying

“If you’ve got a very powerful bully in your organization, you definitely want to get the managing physician or others on your side in saying, ‘We actually have to take care of what this person does internally.'”

You need to make a business case as to what this powerful bully is doing to your medical practice in terms of killing morale, hurting productivity, and causing good people to leave.

“You have the ability to create a policy defining what is acceptable and what is not. You have the ability to directly intervene in a situation where you see bullying happening,” she says.

If you witness bullying and don’t act, you are sending a message both to the person being bullied and to the bully. That message is “I consider it OK. I tolerate it.”

One way of dealing with office bullies is to conduct a 360 review, where seven to 11 people gather and make comments in 10 to 12 areas about individuals being surveyed. The office manager or an outside person takes notes and compiles information in a fashion that provides some level of anonymity.

Doing so allows the information to be documented in black and white and provides a good case to start a formal progressive disciplinary action against a bully.

What if the bully is your boss?

If your boss is bullying you and you don’t want to leave your job, there are a couple of things you can do.

Curry says you might want to figure out how to make your boss look good and help that person realize his or her goals. If that approach doesn’t appeal to you or falls flat, your other option is to define the boundaries of what you are prepared to take and what is not tolerable to you.

For example, if your boss spots you putting your coat on at the end of the day and approaches you with an “urgent” request that needs to be dealt with now, you can say, “I’ll deal with it at home tonight” or you can say, “I can give it an hour now and finish it first thing in the morning.”

If you get nowhere and the abuse continues and escalates, however, your best solution might be to find another job.


Workplace bullying is a two-way interaction. How you respond to it can make all the difference in whether this unwelcome dance continues or ends.

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