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​How to Spot and Deal with an Adult Bully

If Donald Trump is the poster boy for adult bullies, how do we stop the ones in our everyday lives?

Photo via Flickr

So far 2016 has undoubtedly (and unfortunately) been the year of Donald J. Trump. No matter where you go, what you do, or who you speak to, Trump's presence has become a Rorschach test on how to view society—a true scale on which you can judge a person's character and tolerance for others.

In effect, 2016 has also become the year of the adult bully.

There are Trumps everywhere: the professor who passes off their students and their concerns as whiny; the employee who sucks up to the boss and constantly tries to talk over their colleagues; the friend who gaslights you through last-minute plan changes and long delays between messages. Just like Hillary Clinton being interrupted three times more than the orange-white man standing across from her during the first presidential debate, we all have our own bullies to deal with.

Arguably, the prime question that goes through the mind of any bullying victim is, Where and how do I draw the line? We reached out to UBC professor Sandra Robinson—an expert on workplace psychology—to learn what goes into making someone like Trump, and how everyday people can fight back against the Trump-like people in their lives.

VICE: How do you spot an adult bully?
Sandra Robinson: There are a number of things, but the one key thing, as opposed to just a one-off, is a pattern of abusive social behavior. That has to be distinguished from, you know, being an occasional jerk. Usually, you can connect the dots when it involves incidents after incidents.

Can you elaborate?
Well, a lot of people will ask: "What does [bullying] look like?" The answer to that is that we're only really limited by our imagination—we've all experienced or heard about [bullies]...The stereotype of [a bully] is a kid in the playground threatening to beat someone up for their lunch money, but in the workplace and among adults, it's much more sophisticated. It takes a lot more forms, and that has to do with the culture of the workplace, specific relationships, and how socially astute the bully is. There's only a subset of bullies that are really obvious—people who lack a social awareness, or just have so much power that they can do whatever they want.

What are some of the habits that adult bullies tend to have?
Political backstabbing, socially undermining someone, publicly belittling others, and ostracism. [That is] one trait I'm studying quite heavily, which involves purposely leaving people out, excluding them from groups and meetings, giving them the silent treatment or the cold shoulder. Research shows that [ostracism] is extremely detrimental to employees because it makes them feel paranoid, unwelcome, and under extreme stress. Nobody will operate well when they feel like that.

The stereotype is that bullies tend to be bosses. Is that true?
They can be, for sure. One of the reasons a bully is generally a bully is because they have power. When we think of power, we think of bosses and their charge over subordinates. But we also know power comes in different forms. Some people will have more power over peers, either due to their dominant personality or aggressiveness. Maybe they have social status—being in certain demographics gives people more social power.

Demographics: like gender and race?
Exactly. The way our society is set up, men feel they may have more power than women, or white employees may feel they have more power than [people of color]. [It can] take lots of different forms, and that's because power is perceptual—it isn't even necessarily real. The dynamic is all about the bully believing they have a certain level of power, and that actually empowers them to act on their impulses.

What are your thoughts on looking at Donald Trump as a poster boy of the adult bully?
[Laughs] He's a classic example. I think that even people who support Donald Trump may agree that, yes, he is a massive bully. The main difference between his supporters and his detractors is that the former think that it's OK to allow someone to rise to the presidency despite of or because they're a bully.

I think because of his stature and his money, [Trump] feels extremely powerful, and generalizes his [importance] because of that—even when his perception may be wrong.

Do most bullies tend be insecure or overconfident?
For the longest while, there was a concept that, at least among children, the bullies were the insecure ones. However, there was a study done not long ago by [psychologist] Roy Baumeister that found bullying actually tended to develop in children with too high self-esteem. Of course, it's not clear if it generalizes to adults, but I would assume it does.

What's the best way to deal with an adult bully?
There's never one size fits all—especially in workplaces. There are a number of factors that will affect [a person's position at a company], so there are a list of things you can and cannot do.

First is documentation—it's safe for you and not risky for your job. Write down where it was, what was done, when it happened, and collect as much evidence as you can showing a consistent trend of abuse. Documentation is absolutely critical.

Two—and this is difficult to do—to the extent one thinks they can, they need to confront the bully in a professional and calm way. They need to address the behavior that they considered inappropriate and tell them why it can't happen. Tell them, "I'm not going to tolerate that." That's critical, but it's not always possible, even though it is the most ideal thing to do.

Step three would be to go to someone who has more power than you. Your boss, your boss's boss, whoever that may be that can circumvent the bully. Again, that's easier said than done. If it were that easy to fix, it wouldn't happen at all, because we know there are risks to victims who report bullying. The level of risk they face is going to vary.

Finally, if they aren't able to change the circumstance, then they have to limit their exposure to [the bully]. That may mean limiting connections to that person, or, as much as it isn't right, completely [removing themselves from that environment]. That's not right or ideal, but at some point, someone needs to weigh whether it is worth harm to their [mental or physical health.]

During debates with Donald Trump, I think a lot of people wish that his opponents would actually bully him into submission. How much validity is there in out-dominating a bully?
That I don't know about. There are certainly ethical issues there. For many people, there is a desire to get back at a person who bullies them. Get revenge or so on. They feel, I'd love for that person to experience what they did to me. It feels like you can restore equity by doing that, but I don't actually know. I personally believe it could escalate things, because you're putting a bully in a threatening position, and now they're on the defense.

For example, with Trump, when he gets attacked, he uses it as a platform to escalate from. Someone says something bad about him, and he fires back again, and again, and again, and again. Frankly, at least in the political realm, there is power in just nudging a bully enough to challenge them, but still letting them sink themselves. [In Clinton's case], it has made [Trump] more unhinged. That's different than how'd you deal with it in the workplace.

Final question: How do you tell if you're being a bully?
Funny enough, people are relatively oblivious to the bad things they do. Most bullies are completely clueless about their behavior. The best way to find out if you're behavior is acceptable is to ask other people for feedback. With that said, if you're a bully, people may not tell you. If you're not trusted, no one's going to feel comfortable telling you how bad you are until it's completely unavoidable.

Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.