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How to Cope with Bullying as an Entrepreneur

05 May 2015

“I have this client to whom I have delivered our professional services for the past five years. Each year we sit down and talk through exactly what he requires, how we will attend to his needs and what the costs are as we bill annually in our industry. We also make provisions for the procedure around extra billings to account for unexpected work needed through the year. When he received his first billing, he sent a rather blunt email questioning a few things but eventually paid it after a few follow-ups from our side. Over the past years, his blunt questions have progressed to scathing insults directed at my staff and me, personally. When I offer to meet with him to discuss the issues he has raised, he never agrees and I land up feeling as if I have somehow mortally wounded him when payment is finally received after a lengthy request process. What really puzzles me is that he is a very successful businessman who must have many suppliers and many choices as to who to work with - yet when I offer to discontinue our services he never agrees. It has reached the point where I feel physically ill each time I see an email from him and I feel terrified to bill him for anything. I feel completely torn and exhausted by this client as I need his business but he is draining me both financially and emotionally, and I can't get rid of him."

My colleague, in the description above, is describing an entrepreneur bully.

Whilst professional bullying is something we might expect to come across in a corporate environment it surprises us more when we experience this as a business owner. But bullies exist in this environment too – even though it is more difficult for this type to flourish. Fortunately, as business owners, we have more choice around who we deal with and what we have to accept.

In developing a strategy around how to deal effectively with these bullies if we come across them - we should consider the following:

  • What they look like: Entrepreneurial bullies come in all shapes and sizes and, often (not always), they only strike once the relationship foundation has already been established. Bullies should not be confused with those naturally aggressive by nature. On first “strike” bullies will usually completely surprise us and we might hold out for too long waiting for the person we first got to know to return. They won’t.
  • Why they act this way: This is irrelevant. The only reason we need to concern ourselves with is “because they can”. We get to choose whether or not to facilitate their behavior once the immediate surprise has worn off. Unless many of our suppliers are acting this way and we might need to look inwards for the causes, we don’t have the time and the headspace to debate their motivations.
  • How to respond: We should hear them out and consider our response carefully before engaging. Never get drawn into an aggressive argument where everyone’s talking and no one’s listening. Once we have considered the situation – we need to draw a line, stay behind that line and assertively confirm our position if they cross it. If they persevere with inappropriate behavior, we should cease all communications. If there is a payment or services dispute, we can arrange to have a mediator assist the process.
  • Don’t take it personally: Our business is more important than our feelings. Whilst the attack might feel personal or the situation completely unfair, we must respond in an emotionally intelligent manner to do what is best for our business. It is unlikely that we will choose the best course of action if we are feeling angry, hurt or discouraged.