There is a lot of discussion in the media about workplace bullying–how to identify a bully; how to contend with his or her unpleasant behavior; when to contact a lawyer, etc. As a consequence, potential clients contact our office nearly everyday who wish to take legal action against their employers to fix the unpleasant work environment caused by the difficult person, oftentimes their supervisor. These potential clients complain that they are being belittled, criticized unfairly, and in general being treated poorly. Even though they have complained to management about the person’s behavior, nothing has changed. Being immersed in the unpleasantness all day every day causes stress, anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, etc. By the time they get to our office, many have already sought medical attention.
Generally speaking, treating co-workers or subordinates badly is not unlawful (unless, of course, that conduct is discriminatory on account of a protected characteristic.) The clients hoping that legal action will bring justice to the situation feel deflated and powerless upon learning this. They want to know how can this type of behavior be allowed in the workplace? Why isn’t someone going to do something about it? What do I do now?
Here’s what you should do now. Can you control the offending person’s behavior? Of course not. So, short of finding another job, what can you control about the situation? You can control how you respond to the behavior.
Don Miguel Ruiz, in his book entitled The Four Agreements teaches: “Don’t take anything personally. Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally.” How to incorporate that at work?
As an example: your supervisor unfairly criticizes your work, scrutinizes your daily activity, belittles you in front of colleagues, and is generally unpleasant. Why is he treating you like this? What did you do to deserve this type of treatment? Objectively speaking, you aren’t giving him any reason to criticize you. You are doing your best work, completing tasks timely and efficiently, and maintaining good attendance. But you sit at your desk in fear that he will come out of his office and start unfairly criticizing your most recent project. When you get home, you toss and turn all night trying to figure out why this is happening and how to stop it. The daily stress, coupled with sleepless nights, is causing anxiety and depression, and the next thing you know, your doctor has prescribed anti-depressants and you’re on your way to meet with a lawyer to get advice on how to change the situation.
You wish you could adopt the existential philosophy of Johnny Paycheck, but you have bills to pay. You cannot simply refuse your supervisor’s suggestions since working in a hierarchical organization requires following instructions from those above you. Emotionally coping with this situation is going to require you to look inside yourself. You are going to need to reprogram your emotional reaction to his behavior and don’t assume that his behavior has anything to do with you. His own reality drives his behavior. He may be driven by his own fear or anxiety or low self-esteem. You cannot control his reality or his behavior. If you take to heart his criticisms, then you are adopting his reality as yours–if he doesn’t think you’re doing a good job, you aren’t. If he treats you unpleasantly, you must have done something to deserve the unpleasant treatment. Don’t drink his poison.
Reaffirm your reality. Your reality is that you are doing your best work. Stay strong in your belief in yourself. Build a shield around your reality so it cannot be damaged by his. Ruiz counsels, “When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.” Take control of your emotional responses to your supervisor’s behavior. So, instead of asking yourself what you can do differently to change your supervisor’s behavior, make peace with yourself that you can’t. Make peace with your reality that you are doing your best work. Go home feeling satisfied with your personal accomplishments rather than stressed by your supervisor’s conduct. Having a strong emotional foundation is paramount to living a healthy life.