Stand up to bullies — or risk empowering them

Question:

As a contract flight attendant for a charter airline that serves corporate clients, my income depends on the relationship I build with the airline’s pilots. Three months ago, the chief pilot and my best friend, a flight attendant for another airline, divorced. Ever since then, the CP has had it in for me.

Immediately after their divorce, he saw me on the tarmac and told me, “You need to find another airline.” I was shocked and didn’t say anything. He then said, “Scared? I can ruin you.”

The next week, I had a flight with him. When he passed me going into the cockpit, he told me, “I can and will make you miserable.” He then did. Even though I wasn’t ready for the passengers, he called into the lounge and told the gate agent to invite them on board, saying he planned an early departure. That made for a rough start to the flight as I didn’t have the passengers’ initial beverages and snacks queued up, thus making me look bad.

Next, before we deplaned, he’d talked everyone else into going to a steakhouse, even though he knows I’m a vegetarian. I didn’t have the ability to go elsewhere as the crew is supposed to eat together and everyone was excited about this “best steakhouse in the world.” I wound up with a tasteless salad while the copilot and other crew member chowed down bloody meat that turned my stomach.

I’ve tried several times since to make peace with him, but he’s said, “You don’t get it yet, do you? I want you out of here.” Unfortunately, I wind up on many of his flights. What do I do?

Answer:

Bullies don’t stop on their own. If you don’t counter them, problems can spiral out of control, with the bully escalating how he puts you in your place.

Your chief pilot fits the profile for a “wounded rhino” bully. Natural dominators, these forceful, mean-spirited bullies control others through ill temper, deliberate undermining and calculated malevolence. They attack with vengeance and without qualms and delight when their victims squirm.

When you face a wounded rhino bully, you need to act quickly. Based on what you described, you responded with a fearful look when your CP told you that you needed to “find another airline.” He then threatened that he could make you miserable and proceeded to do just that. You’re now getting gored. If you don’t stop him, he’ll gallop forward like any other rhino.

Here’s what you could have done. When he said, “You need to find another airline,” you could have answered, “How come?” By immediately countering a threat with a question, rather than shocked silence, you’ve have taken control of the interaction — even if he didn’t answer you.

Next, even chief pilots work for someone. No charter airline wants to hear stories about how a pilot’s antics jeopardize passenger satisfaction. Add that you’ve been threatened twice, which may lead your corporation’s management into investigating the situation, given the link between a pilot hot temper and passenger safety. Unless the CP can successfully mask his underlying anger, they may give him a “cool off” suspension.

Finally, don’t simply allow what’s happening by letting your pilot fly you into another box canyon. For example, you could have protested, “Steakhouse? Guys, I’m a vegetarian. What about that great other restaurant we’ve heard about?” All too often targets give ground to bullies by letting things happen to them. You have the ability to stand up for yourself. Use it.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.

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