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How To Respond To Aggressive Behavior At Work

Workplace aggression comes in many forms, from verbal abuse to sexual advances. Use these strategies to face intimidation head on.

How To Respond To Aggressive Behavior At Work
[Photo: Flickr userJulián Rodriguez Orihuela]

On the second day of Ellen Pao’s testimony earlier this month, the former Kleiner Perkins partner told the court that the VC firm expected her to participate in an “interrupt-driven environment.” They even gave her coaching so she could interrupt back.

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This statement during one of Silicon Valley’s highest-profile gender discrimination suits to date says a lot about the intimidating work environment many female–and male–leaders face.

Aggression in the workplace is commonplace but rarely mentioned, and if companies are to tap the talents of all their workers, it must be addressed.

How Pervasive Is Aggression?

Aggression takes many forms–from intimidating tactics in meetings to sexual overtures—and can range from active to passive.

From scathing put-downs to pointed words like, “Really?” “Prove it!” or “Are you sure?” this kind of aggression can unnerve most people and make them feel what they’ve said is not credible.

I experienced aggression in meetings when I was a young speechwriter as part of a PR team of bright professionals. Despite the talent in the room, our boss attacked everyone who spoke. We soon realized that saying nothing was the best approach.

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Another kind of aggression is of the silent variety. Senior executives can intimidate speakers with penetrating stares or furrowed brows. One bright vice president told me that when she had one-on-one meetings with her boss, he would stare at her the whole time, trying to break her. It was difficult for her to keep her train of thought.

Aggression can also include inappropriate sexual comments or even sexual advances. The term “hitting on” someone rightly describes such exchanges.

Men aren’t the only aggressors. According to Gary Namie, cofounder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, some “women feel the need to be hyper-aggressive to get ahead in the male-dominant environment.” There are times when women make unwanted sexual advancements toward men. I know of such a case myself where a female CEO made advances to her head of HR. He left the company and sued her–and she lost her job.

How can you best respond to workplace intimidation?

1. Don’t Tolerate Interruptions

For starters, don’t allow interruptions. If you are leading a meeting, show that you expect everyone to be polite and respectful. If someone interrupts, call him or her on it. Say, “Please, John, Marie was speaking.” If you are interrupted, keep talking firmly or say, “I’d like to finish.” Put your hand up and palm forward so they know you mean business. People will respect you more if you do not tolerate interruptions.

2. Don’t Cower Before Verbal Abuse

If someone comes at you with vitriol like, “How can you say that?” or “Are you sure of your facts?” try not to react defensively. Doing so gives the aggressor power. Instead, take a breath, look him or her directly in the eye, and respond (perhaps even with a smile) “I’m glad you asked” or “Yes, I am sure.” Such responses show that you welcome the opportunity to explain. And the smile shows that you are not intimidated–and that you find the questions slightly amusing or even gratifying because they provide a platform for your confident answer.

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3. Don’t Let Penetrating Eye Contact Unnerve You

When someone stares, don’t be intimidated. Realize that this is an opportunity to show you are not afraid. Make your eye contact just as long and as strong as the other person’s. And as you do so, you will feel that you have the upper hand, because you are showing that you are not unnerved. I’ve often found when first meeting a male senior executive that I’m tested in this way. He looks at me with that long, drawn-out eye contact, and I don’t flinch or look away. That is the beginning of earning his trust and making him feel I can coach him.

4. Call Out Sexual Aggression

If you are taken aback because someone in power makes advances, it is absolutely right and imperative that we not pretend it isn’t happening. A female executive I know has from time to time found her boss standing next to her in his office and quietly making body contact. Her response has been to quietly move away and say nothing. This is too subtle. The aggressor should be called out on this behavior and told it’s unprofessional. We need to speak out about sexual aggression whenever we see it.

To help create positive, productive work environments, we must all stand up against aggressive behavior. This goes for men and women who see this behavior on their teams or who may be the object of such intimidation. If we all speak up, we can change our work world and make it safer for all.

About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She is a communications expert whose business teaches global clients how to communicate as confident, compelling leaders.

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