[Life Back West] September 2010 – “The Bully”

Sometimes the best (and hardest) lessons you learn are when you’re a child. They can also happen when you’re a parent of a child.

In both situations the best you hope for is that everyone comes out learning something from which they can grow. Your wish, in effect, is that it’s the silver lining that gets explored, not just the hard edges and rough lessons of the dark cloud that envelopes it.

Hindsight in these cases is not always helpful but is frequently instructive.

I wish, for example, that I was better at listening to my intuition than intellectualizing situations. So when a classmate I’ll call “Lester” gave my then 7 year-old son a blindside body check that was hard enough to cause my son to cry on the last day of school this summer, I should have scampered up to the pillowed reading loft that Lester ran to and hid when he saw that I had caught sight of his  misdeed. The intellectual approach – “too much excitement on the last day of school” – was the way I interpreted the situation. My gut said to  address the incident then; my mind said that it was a one time aberration.

My gut was right.

Lester ramped things up at the start of this new school year by pinching, grabbing and kicking my son when he got the chance. He was smart enough to do things when adults were out of sight, and sharp enough, for example, to pick on the ankle Traylor had sprained playing soccer rather than the healthy one that wasn’t tender. He also did what bullies frequently do which is to incite the inadvertent participation of others to round out his repertoire.

My advice to my son – “tell him to knock it off” – was of little help.

Just as kids who bully exist on the playground, their adult counterparts exist in the corporate suite. You don’t have to be an expert to know that this type of behavior at the work level has its genus from elements found at home or being on receiving end of bullying themselves. In the corporate suite bullies exist where either that behavior is rewarded or tolerated.

Kids though can be different. It is possible that it’s behavior that’s picked up elsewhere. What is also true though is that it can physiological as in attention deficit disorder (where the learned behavior to behave differently never “sticks” because it does not stay in short term memory long enough) or with challenges around impulse control – something even some adults find challenging.

Forbes magazine noted (“Corporate Bullies) that while aggressive, bullying behavior can help executives get to the top, the same behavior accelerates their downfall. Thoughts on “serial bullies” can be found here. Noted bullies such as Martha Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, or Elliot Spitzer “unravel” as they go too far, cross the line one too many times. Forbes quotes management consultant Gary Namie as saying, “At some point, those we consider ‘visionaries’ become puffed-up creations of their own imagination.”

Just as jerks will continue to exist in the workplace, bullying behavior will likely survive as well. And similar to the sets of tactics schools and kids can deploy, there are tactics that employees can utilize if they’re on or around the receiving end of bullying behavior at the workplace. These steps, as noted in a piece written by Ted Mouradian for The Brock Press, include:

  1. “Tell the bully what you need, never what they are doing wrong
  2. Sometimes a coffee with the bully asking them what it is that you did to make them so angry. This has a tendency to disarm the bully when you ask them how you can do better
  3. Never back down from the bully if you believe that the bullying is unjust
  4. Do not dance the bully’s dance. Force them to dance your dance
  5. Tell the bully that you will be talking to senior management about their behavior
  6. Do not allow yourself to become a victim”

Harvard Business Review recently identified four key qualities needed for inspirational leaders: humaneness, intuition, tough empathy, and uniqueness. The research-driven work by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner – with data from over 3M respondents – comes to a similar conclusion that “caring is the heart of leadership.”

People who bully lose or forget their humanness; they care not about others, but mostly about themselves.

The mitzvah in all of this is that we are lucky to have Traylor attend a school that is remarkable for the number of good kids (and families) that work hard on doing right in a continuing attempt to live up to the school’s stated values of respect, responsibility and compassion. It’s also a school that is interested in not just stopping inappropriate behavior, but in finding out the cause behind it.

I am trying to steel myself to be patient (though I’ve made sure everyone knows that I am very concerned with some continuing incidents) as the school works through the situation in the manner which they feel is best. This type of thing is familiar ground for any experienced teacher or administrator, and folks in the school are highly competent.

After a lifetime of asking clients to “trust the process” – like a crib from Star Wars – it’s my turn to trust the school’s process of doing their work. Everyone wants appropriate behavior, and in doing so it’s part about ensuring compassion for kids or families who are trying hard and perhaps struggling with bringing forth their best behaviors, instilling respect so kids learn to disdain and avoid bullying behavior, and everyone taking responsibility for their own actions.

So while this school of hard lessons is in session, both parents and kids have homework to do.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.