We’ve all dealt with bullies, in school, on the playground, even at work. Bullies are everywhere, even in familial relations and family offices. In adult settings, they may commandeer the conversation, demand our attention and try to impose their will upon those around them.

When we were children, adults would tell us to ignore the bully, that they would eventually come around or turn their attention to someone else. As adults, whether in the workplace or in a family situation, we find that it might not be so simple.

I recently received a call from someone who was engaged to help deal with a family patriarch who was bullying other family members. His ire was especially derisive to younger and female members of the family, disrespecting and dismissing them for youth, gender and or lack of experience.

What’s worse, I learned that via his aggressive nature he would try to impose his will and do his best to drive others into submission.

To be sure, experience comes with age, and the next generation would be wise to accept the council of elders. However, browbeating and screaming rarely achieve the intended outcomes. I knew they had a tough road ahead.

Bullying behaviour often is a psychosis borne of previous trauma. It has been said “the bullied becomes the bully.” In my experience, most bullies have underlying issues that drive their behaviour. It may be a protective measure, their means of survival. It might stem from dismissive or physically, emotionally, even sexually abusive parents, siblings or authority figures.

Sometimes, belligerence is an attempt to hide shortcomings – or worse. When I was a young trader in Italy, my office hired a new manager much senior to myself. He often told me and my peers that we were doing things incorrectly and would micromanage different foreign exchange transactions. It was only when he went on a two-week holiday that it became apparent that he was less than honest and his heavy-handed attitude and manhandling were attempts to hide his fraudulent transactions.

Below are a few approaches to handle bullies (keep in mind that encounters in the workplace may be very different from in a family office setting)…

  • Don’t work with them. Best you can, especially amongst contemporaries or peers in the workplace, lay down your own law. “Don’t speak to me that way,” or “if you won’t listen to me, I will find someone who will,” may help establish the line beyond which you will not participate. If it persists, report it to your superior and request a change – of workstation, team or office, or review of their behaviour with them.
  • Don’t appease them. If they insist “their way is better,” your response will depend on the setting or your station. A supervisor in the office might have the authority to compel compliance. If they become belligerent or abusive, go to HR. In the family office setting, it can require its own unique approach or softer touch. Patriarchs or matriarchs are not easily dismissed or even less likely dethroned.
  • Speak logically. “Just because you’ve always done it that way does not mean that it is the right way,” or “I have an idea that might work,” said in a calm voice may help soften their approach. There is no guarantee, but taking the high road never hurts.
  • Ignore them. We know from our youth that feeding the beast often emboldens bad behaviour. Not giving the bully the attention they desire often leads to their quieting down – or turning their aggression elsewhere.
  • Stand up to them. In the situation I outlined above, one of the patriarchs (an uncle in the 2nd generation) was trying to bully a younger family member (his nephew) to turn against his mother and pressure her to change her will to redirect her inheritance to the uncle (the brother of her spouse). What’s more, the nephew works for the uncle. As I write this article, the situation is still in play and the outlook looks tenuous.
  • Realise it’s a psychosis. As stated above, bullying can be a defensive posture. With some, you can encourage therapy or open discussions; when they’re in their 60s or 70s it is unlikely that change will come. But realising that they are in pain can help you understand their motivations, and maybe even help you avoid your own behaviours that could antagonise or trigger them.

Ultimately, in identifying the bully and realising that you may never get through to them, it is more about your dealing with their behaviour than changing it. Of course, if they’re mean-spirited or abusive, you have recourse at your disposal – like reporting them to HR or asking a family member to intervene.

If a bully rules or challenges your family office or dynamic and you need guidance in navigating the relationship, a seasoned counsellor can help. Again, you may not change the bully. But you may be able to reduce their power or the counsellor can help you navigate a future course.