Author Bio ▼

Dr Flis has a BA SSc and a PhD in organisational social psychology and is passionate about helping people who lead and work in organisations create better workplace experiences and improving work cultures. Get free resources and tactics on appropriately dealing with negative online and offline workplace behaviours at or contact Dr Flis at[email protected] or  LinkedIn. You can also follow Dr Flis on her blog Twitter or Facebook.
July 4, 2017

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Social psychology

Spotting the difference between a bully & fear-motivated behaviour

A common human reaction to sudden and unexpected aggression is to back off. This reaction is a survival trait. This is why most of us, in the face of highly aggressive workplace bullying, will react with stunned silence and retreat.

Social psychologyUnfortunately, many workplace bullies are aware of this reaction. And this is why many bullies use this tactic, which I describe as The Switch Technique (described in detail here), to gain the upper hand.

Spotting and dealing with a workplace bully

Normally, on first meeting the workplace bully you’ll probably think that they’re charming. You may even open up and share some of your life stories or past work history. You may even share some of your failures. Imagine your surprise when, the next time you see your new best friend, they have a full-on tantrum or dummy spit, and accuse you of a major mistake or error in front of your boss, colleagues, staff or client(s). You’re unsure what you did wrong, but you feel embarrassed and instinctively retreat in confusion. This instinctive reaction allows the bully to gain the upper hand, and create the impression that you either don’t know what you’re doing or are incompetent.

Prove to the bully that you’re a tough target

Instead of retreating from the bully, calmly and professionally rebuff the bully’s claims. Read over the phrases that I’ve listed below and choose one or two you think best suits your work culture and environment – something that you know won’t escalate the situation. Daily practice saying these phrases when you’re alone walking the dog, or out and about, so that you can use them calmly and professionally when you need them most.

Phrases to help you expertly rebuff the bully

  • “While you may have a point, your attitude isn’t helping.”
  • “How is your attitude helping?”
  • “How does that help?”
  • “What’s your point?”
  • “Really..?”
  • “Seriously..?”
  • “Why…?”
  • “And the basis of your argument is…?”
  • “Is that it?”
  • “Good to know. Let’s move on.”
  • “Maybe you’re right. Let’s move on.”
  • “Hold that thought, I’ll get back to you.”
  • “I’m learning a lot about you.”
  • “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
  • “Do you get away with that a lot?”
  • “How’s that working for you?”
  • “Does that normally work for you..?”

Interrupting the bully’s behaviour early boosts your chances of stopping them for good.

Research consistently proves that the faster you can halt the bully early, the greater your chances of stopping the bully in their tracks. This means, your ability to immediately respond and repudiate the bully, and bat away their claims, is a clear demonstration of your ability to think on your feet, and to confidently protect your personal boundaries.

Spotting & dealing with fear-motivated behaviour

If you’re a supervisor or boss, and are suddenly and inexplicably dealing with aggressive or rude behaviour from staff and/or close clients, then you might want to entertain the possibility that your staff are not reacting to you at all. Instead, they may be reacting to an issue, situation or work change that you represent.

For example, your boss may have asked you to implement a re-engineering program and the process has caused your staff to be fearful of losing their jobs. Their fear is driving this new behaviour.

Ok, I’m sure I’ve said this before! Humans are highly emotional, and our communication is messy. That means, there is likely to be a significant difference between what I think I just said to you, and how you interpreted my words. And that’s on a good day, in perfect conditions!

Unsurprisingly, under stress or pressure, our communication gets even messier and more fraught with confusion. Stressful situations are also capable of uncovering those delightful little behavioural idiosyncrasies that we all have (and that our parents and long-term partners are probably fully aware of), which can sometimes cause us to behave in a fear-motivated, aggressive manner.

So, if you suddenly and inexplicably find yourself being ‘cold-shouldered’ and ignored by your staff, inexplicably and rudely attacked, try to avoid taking it personally in the first instance. Instead, ask yourself,

‘What recent work changes could be making people feel fearful or unusually stressed and causing this odd behaviour?’

To help you identify and unpack the underlying causes creating this negative or toxic behaviour, I’ve created a non-threatening, anonymous ‘5 Minute Workplace Wish List’, which you can access HERE.

For safe tactics to quickly and expertly deal with a workplace bully, enrol for FREE HERE on my 1 hour eCourse ‘How to quickly recognise and control a workplace bullying without getting victimised.’

Dr Felicity Lawrence has a PhD in organisational social psychology from the Faculty of Education, QUT (+BA SSc & Dip PM), and 25 years experience in private, military and government workplaces.

Contact: [email protected], or follow on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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Em Frazer
Em Frazer
6 years ago

This advice really hits the spot! I’m in a new job and supervising a large team who’s been asked to re-apply for their jobs. I thought they just hated me, and now I realise they’re terrified and struggling. Thx Dr Lawrence

Dr Flis Lawrence
Dr Flis Lawrence
6 years ago
Reply to  Em Frazer

Awesome! It’s great to know my advice is hitting the spot for you, Em!

All the best

Dr Flis Lawrence

6 years ago

I’ve never received such simple, clear guidance on how to ‘rebuff’ bullies. Will definitely give these a go.

Dr Flis Lawrence
Dr Flis Lawrence
6 years ago
Reply to  jon

That’s great feedback, Jon! Thank you.

My only caveat to my article is to consider each ‘rebuffal phrase’ within the context of your workplace culture – if you think a phrase would sound a bit weird, then either don’t use it or perhaps modify it to suit your needs. My overarching ‘Rule Of Thumb’ is to do no harm to yourself (or to others).

All the best
Dr Flis Lawrence

6 years ago

Thanks for the list.

Yesterday, one of my staff who’s been here forever shouted over me in front of everyone. It’s the forth time it’s happened.

I felt mortified and haven’t known how to protect myself. HR is stumped to.

I’m going to memorise this list right now and put a stop to this.