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Ensure attacks fall wide of the mark

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Recognising an attack is the first step to effectively defending yourself against it

Grooming is what workplace bullies do to ascertain whether someone might be susceptible to bullying. It may occur once, or many times - but each time the bully uses certain behaviours to see how a possible target reacts. They observe what their target says and does to assess whether they are someone with whom it will be easy to create a bullying dynamic.

Anyone can be groomed, be they assertive nurses who can handle confrontation or those who can’t or find it tough to stand up for themselves. But not everyone who is groomed is bullied. Nurses who have a hard time being assertive may be preferred targets because their responses when groomed leave them vulnerable.

Tips on how to respond to grooming behaviour

● Engage with bullies, rather than shying away from any confrontation
● Challenge them by saying “I don’t see myself like that”
● Make it clear in your response that you know what they are trying to do but will stand up for yourself
● This article contains extracts from Free Yourself from Workplace Bullying (Mint Hall Publishing, 2015)

Consider the following:

  • When they are alone, a ward sister looks down her nose at a newly hired, friendly nurse and says she comes across as “intimidating”. The senior nurse’s characterisation of her junior colleague aims to confuse her. It suggests the nurse - who is used to being liked - isn’t likeable. The ward sister can see how she reacts and how susceptible she may be to more attacks.
  • In contemptuous tones one nurse tells another to “sort out that mess” and points to a pile of her own paperwork. This grooming is aggressive and directive, a combination that will tell the bully a lot about how her colleague reacts under such pressure. Grooming can be subtle and confusing or direct but the bully’s aim is to evaluate:
  • Whether the nurse handles the interaction robustly, uncomfortably or somewhere in between;
  • How effectively the nurse protects themselves;
  • How clearly the nurse shows they know what the bully is doing and how to take care of themselves.

Potential targets often end up in the line of fire as they don’t recognise grooming, are confused, staying silent and passive, or feel intimidated and can’t respond as they normally would to confusing or unexpected behaviour. Others don’t want to face the challenging dynamics so keep quiet instead of engaging.

Nurses being groomed must avoid staying silent and submissive; instead they must challenge the bully’s perception of them if it is unfavourable or untrue by:

  • Directly disagreeing with them, or challenging what they have said, to demonstrate knowing their own mind;
  • Ask the bully what they mean if they are being indirect, evasive or deliberately confusing.

● This is the third of six articles on bullying behaviour at work. Subsequent articles will explore passive and active aggression, upwards bullying, and how to handle bullying behaviour at the time of an attack.


Aryanne Oade has worked as a chartered psychologist for more than 20 years. She coaches clients to recover from the effects of workplace bullying.


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Readers who would like to explore issues around workplace bullying further can download a range of free audio and written resources on detoxifying and recovering from bullying, learning to become bully-proof and handling adversarial behaviour at work:

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