Workplace bullies come in four distinct "types." Here's how to deal with each of them

Megan Carle, workplace bullying expert and author of "Walk Away to Win," explains how to deal with office tyrants

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 7, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Office seen from above with employees sitting at their workstations in a formation shaped like a circle, one drawn away from her colleagues (Getty Images/Henrik Sorensen)
Office seen from above with employees sitting at their workstations in a formation shaped like a circle, one drawn away from her colleagues (Getty Images/Henrik Sorensen)

On the surface, she seemed to be at the pinnacle of her career. But inside, Megan Carle says she "felt so alone" at work. She'd spent three decades — roughly her entire professional life — rising through the ranks of Nike, one of the most successful companies in the world. What few people, even her colleagues, knew was that she was also experiencing the demoralizing ordeal of workplace bullying.

"I was always back on my heels, I always expected some sort of different outcome," she recalls.

And though she'd been raised with a winners-never-quit ethos, in 2016, she left her job. Two years later, a #MeToo era shakeup at the company led to more departures — this time from several of Nike's top executives. 

By then, however, Carle had moved on, creating a new career for herself as a consultant and writer. Now, in her debut book "Walk Away to Win: A Playbook to Combat Workplace Bullying," Carle combines the hard-won lessons of her own experience with interviews with other veterans of workplace bullying to create a realistic approach to recognizing the problem — and taking back control of your life and your ambitions.

Salon talked to Carle recently about what workplace bullying is and isn't, why it's so insidious, and how to create a plan for getting space between you and the bully and your professional life back on track. And while bullies thrive on making their marks feel incompetent and off balance, Carle says, "It's not your fault. Don't suffer in silence." 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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The title of the book evokes our era of work, in which "quiet quitting" has become a buzzword. But you also talk about a lot of things you have to do before you walk away. Tell me about what walking away to win really needs.

I was raised in a sports family. My stepdad was a basketball coach, and so winning was a thing. Winning put food on our tables. You get the contract when you're winning team. I had to shift that whole idea of the win and my understanding that just because I have lost something, or I'm quitting, I'm not a loser. I'm not a quitter. I'm certainly not a failure. It took me some time. 

As you say, you can have a competitive, fast-paced environment where people are pushed, but that is not bullying. And you can have other things that are not great. So what is bullying not, so that we can understand what it is?

It's not a one off. It's not, "I'm having a bad day." It's not, "I'm going to push you, I'm going to challenge you." The distinction that helps is, repeated pattern of health harming mistreatment. "Repeated pattern" is really important. Is it a pattern? Are you experiencing that consistently? Are you starting to document that to see if is there a pattern to that? 

It's not generally done by people who you have social credits with, and vice versa. So you have that established connection that could be more of a, "You woke up on the wrong side of the bed, why don't you maybe take that elsewhere today?"

There's an author named Dr. Laura Crawshaw, and she's called "the boss whisperer." She talks a lot about abrasive bosses. That's not bullying. Now, if there's an abrasiveness coming at you over and over, and it is starting to affect your health and your ability to do your job, and that abrasiveness has turned into this repeated pattern of aggression at you, then you probably want to push pause and then evaluate that.

Talk to me about the different quadrants of bullying. You have overt, covert, public, private, and they manifest in different ways. 

I just needed to simplify, because I didn't really know what happened. You know, you're just in it and you're kind of getting the sh*t beaten out of you daily. And you can't figure out. Why do I feel lousy all the time? I have this long career. I'm generally a very optimistic, glass half full person. I like to compete. I like a fast pace. So I just got a very business graph. Our quadrants, overt or covert, public or private, became this grounding for me, working through my own experience. 

Public overt is, "I am in your face, I am banging the table, I am pounding my chest, I'm yelling." What I find interesting about public overt, in your face bullies, is that's some of the easiest bullying to withstand, because you can see it coming at you. So you know, okay, this is aggression. Probably launching some F bombs, all that.

When it's public covert, that rat face, which comes from "All the President's Men," that's just "I want to just mess with you." I just want to trip you up. When you're presenting, I might set an alarm that's a barking dog. I want to just see if I can get you off your game a little bit. 

Then there's that private bullying, which is so tough because it's one on one. There's that about-face bully who is singing your praises, and then one-on-one it's, "Why do you think you're so special? When I want your opinion I'll give it to you. Shut it." 

And then the last one, which is private covert, which is very much the epitome of passive-aggressiveness. Those are those bullies that reel you in with, "I heard you have kids and drop them off at school. Isn't that fun?" Then they make sure every morning meeting lands right when you like to do that. I'm not really going to be in your face about anything, but I'm just going to trip you up. And only you and I are going to really know that, and you're not really going to be able to put your finger on it because it's passive-aggressive. We've all experienced that. Then there's that gaslighter, that bully who really wants you to question everything about yourself. You're hearing things, you're seeing things, you're missing things. Your work is sabotaged, you're disinvited. So that really takes you into a whole new framework.

Let's talk about some of the things that we can do, because the first step is recognizing it and understanding what's going on. There are strategies well before we get to walking away, because I don't know anyone who can just say, "Okay, you know what? I quit." It builds up, it is repeated behavior that takes a toll. 

Being the target of workplace bullying, you're so confused. Everybody I interviewed was just like, "Is that bullying?" They'd describe something horrific and then they'd be like, "Is that bullying?"

A big part of why the book developed in the way that it did with all of these other stories involved was because I would hear from people, and when they would tell their stories, they were transported back in time. I had a woman in her fifties tell me about something that happened in her twenties. Her whole physical being changed as she told me that story. It really broke my heart. And her question after she told me that was, "Is that workplace bullying?" 

It comes at you in all these different ways. What you can do is first of all, recognize it. Put language to it. It's hard to help ourselves when we don't know what to call it. That's why it's so important to document, to enlist your allies. "We were both in that same meeting, and when this person did this, it really made me feel small and diminished. I wonder if you noticed that as well." That's why that's simple. Trying to categorize it is the first step. 

And then understand the cultural context in which it's thriving. Why is this happening here? When it's happening to you, you're so in it, that it's actually hard to even to recognize or understand it. If you can pull yourself out of it and observe, "Is the climate one of toxicity and hostility? Is the climate one of a top-down autocratic ruler whose way is the only way and the rest of the team is there to support and make sure that they stay in their good graces?" Maybe it wasn't, and maybe it is now. What shifted? How are you valued? How are you rewarded? How are decisions made? Take this checkup. What's this cultural context? I love that quote that workplace culture is shaped by the worst behavior that leaders will tolerate. What is the worst behavior that leaders are tolerating in your workplace right now? That's a really great check. 

So you recognize it, you understand it, then you're able to identify it. And hopefully, you've started to develop some response options. Those are really hard. I borrowed from equine therapy, of all things. I have a neighbor who's an equine therapist, and we happened to be out for a walk one day, and she started talking about, "Well, you can ignore, you can resist, you can comply, or you can enlist." I thought, I could give people who are experiencing this an idea of some moves they could make. I wanted to give people some sort of agency in what was happening to them. Trying out these response options, my go-to was compliance. I was always back on my heels, I always expected some sort of different outcome. Looking back at it now, it's comical. It's like, what are you doing? Why do you expect this to be different?

It's navigating it, and figuring out, where am I in all of this? What are my options? Do I want to wait this out? What toll is it taking on me and my family? What toll does leaving take on me and my family? I set that up as "recognize, understand, identify and navigate" so that workplace bullying doesn't ruin you.

My favorite point that you make in this whole book is that bullies aren't going to change. What do we do around that? Why is it important that we understand that and get that through our heads?

It's so important to understand that because you will stop playing that game that puts you in the center of that experience and you will stop taking responsibility for why that is happening. Those who are being targeted, you didn't invite the tsunami to take down your house. You didn't invite a bully.

I used to talk about this as, I had this career and then I ran into a bully. One of my brothers said, "You didn't run into a bully. Megan, the bully found you and targeted you." There's a difference there. I so appreciate that. I've had other people say, "The thing I just don't get is, is why did you allow yourself to be bullied?" I didn't allow that to happen. That's so important, because it gets you on the offense. You're so back on your heels, you're so off balance with this stuff. You can start to take that stance of, "This is not about me. I don't know what happened in your life, bully, that makes you this unhappy and fearful. That's not for me to figure out. I'm going to do the best job I can do." 

As I look back on my own experience, I really wish I had enlisted people to support me. I felt so alone. I thought that I was the only one who had ever experienced this. It becomes this very, walking on eggshells. I'm definitely not doing my best work. All I'm thinking about is okay, how do I navigate this situation with this person who's most likely going to be coming at me with some sort of bullying behavior? So just pull yourself out of that "I've done something." You haven't. You didn't do anything,

"The bully isn't going to change."

You can either wait that out and hope that the bully gets moved, or you get moved. You can go to upper management and HR and let them know, "Hey, this is the behavior" and using language that HR has to respond to. "Isn't that known as harassment? Wouldn't you consider that bullying behavior? I knew you'd want to know about that, because I know you're obligated to respond to that." Then you've created a record. And you're putting yourself out there and you're talking about it.

You are someone who had invested a lot of time in your job. What do you want to say to that person who is scared? Who feels like it is that binary of "What am I supposed to do? Just quit my job?" What do you want to say to that person who feels like they're so stuck, and they're so belittled, and they're so sleep deprived and they're so stressed out they feel like they don't have options?

I've interviewed a lot of those people. It is heartbreaking to hear when we get to that point. What I tend to say is, "At what cost? What is your rock bottom?" Know that there's so much more goodness for you yet to come. I think my best work is still ahead of me, and I did great work. 

I really do believe in defining that win for yourself, which could mean, I'm staying put. I'm enlisting my allies. I'm getting help from the outside as well. I'm talking to a counselor, I'm doing the things I need to do. I've got the full support of my family. It's not your fault. Don't suffer in silence — and define your win. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Career Interview Megan Carle Mental Health Psychology Walk Away To Win Workplace Bullying