Updated: May 25
I've been hearing a lot from my clients lately about how they are struggling with big egos, lots of drama, and BULLIES at work.
Honestly, their stories are surprising and painful. There is not a lot of information online or even in printed books about how to deal with co-workers or bosses who have ego issues so I gathered up my own resources and have some helpful ideas for you today.
Look below for a recorded workshop that you can play in your office as a Lunch and Learn. Please share this information with someone who needs help with egotistic leaders or bullies at work today.
How to Handle Big Egos and Bullies in the Workplace:
4 Strategies to Stay Professional and Forward-Focused
Dealing with big egos, dramatic personalities, or getting bullied at work is a tough situation to conquer for even the strongest professional. Blatant undercutting, requiring deferential treatment, getting set up for failure, getting yelled at, being mocked, intimidated, shut down, teased, ignored, or given the “silent treatment” is bullying, plain and simple. These bad leadership habits have been tolerated for years and workplace complaints are on the rise*.
We hear lots of stories today about professionals who are being managed by people who seem unaware of the effects that their self-centered style has on coworkers. Insecure and sycophantic individuals often focus their efforts on keeping others down. If this is happening in your workplace, here are four strategies to help you hold your own and handle the situation with confidence.
1. Stay Professional
An emotional reaction is exactly the response that any bully or egomaniac is hoping for. In fact, your feelings of shame, anger, or embarrassment are a reward to them. An emotional outburst from you not only rewards them, it may make you appear childish and confrontational to others who did not witness the provocation.
Do your best to maintain appropriate boundaries, and avoid emotional outbursts. Excuse yourself from the room when you need to compose yourself and do your best to arrange that you are not alone with anyone who is intimidating you.
2. Prepare Ahead With Carefully Worded Responses
When someone is rude or acts like a self-centered child in a business setting, you may be tempted to respond with a quip like “Excuse me?”, “What did you just say?”, ” SORRY, WHAT?”.
Even worse, you might be the person who puts your head down, fights back anger, frustration, or tears, and says nothing at all. Then, hours later you’ll come up with the perfect response but share it only with family or co-workers.
A really good strategy is to prepare yourself ahead of time with carefully worded phrases. A quiet and non-emotional response is unexpected in these situations and for me, this has worked well.
I've worked with people who have felt very threatened by my curiosity, enthusiasm, good ideas, and optimism. Yep, I was a really annoying person to work with back in those cubicle days.
After lots of painful experiences, I realized that some people feel very threatened when someone else has a good idea or suggests an improvement. They feel so insecure that they don't even realize the effects of their comments on others. After constantly being dismissed and even getting eye rolls from Donna I prepared a response ahead of time. After one of her snarky dismissals, I quietly replied, "Donna, it sounds like you feel I’m not qualified to work on this project. Is that what you meant to say?” She was speechless and blinked about 25 times. It got a little uncomfortable in the room. It's important to expect an awkward silence and let it stay awkward for that brief time while the receiver processes. Remember, an insecure person will always look for someone to blame. This is their way of protecting themselves and it's usually a big surprise to them to realize that their excuses caused others to feel belittled. Later she came to me and apologized, saying it was not her intention to belittle me.
I feel like it was a growth experience for both of us.
Over the years I've also used simple responses such as “Ouch!”, or “Wow, that stings.” It's important to say these comments without anger or accusation. Keep your voice low and calm.
Here are some of my favorite replies:
Did you mean to say ____?
Would you clarify what you mean by _____? It sounds like you are saying ______.
Wow, that stings.
That's not true.
That's not appropriate.
That's against company policy.
That's not relevant.
That's making everyone uncomfortable.
Let's get back on track. Today we are here to discuss ______.
Perhaps we should continue this conversation in HR.
Remember to keep quiet during the awkward moments following. You may be the first person to have ever pushed back, which is uncomfortable and possibly embarrassing.
3. Complaining and Whining Won’t Help
When you’re dealing with any stressful situation, complaining to others who have no power to make a change is futile, and it leaves everyone feeling frustrated and upset. When you feel like complaining, remind yourself to seek solutions instead of sympathy. This is really tough but resist the urge to complain to co-workers and anyone at work who is not the egocentric or their manager. Instead of venting, document the incident/s and decide whether you address the individual directly, talk with their manager or leader, file an official complaint, hire an attorney, or make a career move. Your friends can help, though. Find an activity that you can do together that is fun, keeps you busy, and will allow you to stop dwelling on the situation.
4. Seek a New and Better Position Elsewhere
If your company tolerates egomaniacs and bullying, chances are it’s never going to be a positive work environment, so polish your resume, introduce yourself to a headhunter and hire a career coach. It is usually best to find a job when you have a job, so don’t wait until the situation is so upsetting that you are forced to resign without a new position already in place.
When you do move on, it’s important to let human resources or
appropriate management know that you left the company because you felt overlooked, ignored, threatened, and intimidated.
Regardless of the path you take, learn from the situation. In the future, seek and accept positions with companies that have a transparent policy on leadership and positive workplace initiatives.
When you are interviewing, trust your intuition. If it seems like a negative environment, or something feels not right, keep looking. You spend a lot of time at work, and your time there should be meaningful and pleasant.
Remember, no matter what your title is, you are always in the position to influence change, growth, and improvement. Stay positive and forward-focused because others are watching and learning from you.
Want more help? This is a workshop I taught recently for more than 500 women across the US and Canada. The Q&A session after this workshop lasted for more than 90minutes. If you are in HR or business leadership, be aware that conflict at work is a problem that your employees may not be sharing with you.
This is a very helpful resource and can be used as a Lunch and Learn or leadership discussion group:
Now that you more about this frustrating situation, pass it on. Please share these tips with your HR Department or any co-worker, colleague, or friend who needs help with this right now.
If you'd like to invite me to host a discussion or corporate training at your company, click here.
*Recent studies report that 31% of Americans have been bullied as an adult. If you’re experiencing bullying or intimidation, be aware that the stress can affect your physical and emotional health. You may feel isolated and overwhelmed. Reach out for help from friends, family, your doctor, therapist, or employee assistance program.
Employers get help here.
Beth Caldwell is a social worker turned corporate trainer. A popular writer and columnist in the United States, she is the author of ten popular books on leadership and personal development. Her articles on leadership have appeared in Smart Business magazine, American City Business Journals, and THRIVE Global. Having lots to say about the topics of leadership and legacy, Beth can be found speaking to audiences worldwide, sometimes on zoom, mostly in person, and always to a standing ovation.
Beth is fully vaccinated, traveling, and now scheduling trainings globally. Click here for more information.
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