Workplace Wisdom

The Bully Pulpit, Part I: Out of the Schoolroom, Into the Boardroom?

Recently, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how to deal with bosses — and occasionally co-workers — who are bullies. I’m wondering if bullying is generally on the rise in tandem with the clinically noted increase in narcissism in the population at large, because both involve a focus on the self to the detriment of others.

It certainly makes sense that there would be more bullying at work these days, both in response to the current and pervasive sense of job insecurity, and also because many workplaces are demanding more in terms of output and productivity while providing less in compensation, benefits, and any kind of support.

The Rise (Fall?) of the Bully

The etymology of the word “bully” is fascinating. It comes from a Dutch or German word meaning both “lover” and “brother.” This suggests an interesting parallel to fraternity brothers: Their initiations often involve hazing rituals that are passed down from generation to generation, because the combination of love and abuse appears to be a successful way of establishing and inheriting power and success.

The noun “bully” started out meaning “a sweetheart” or a “a fine chap,” according to the online Merriam-Webster, and then shifted to “a blustering browbeating person; especially: one habitually cruel to others who are weaker.” The verb “to bully,” however, is consistently negative: “(1) to treat abusively; (2) to affect by means of force or coercion.” But the adjective “bully” was once used as a synonym for “excellent.” Think of a vibrant Teddy Roosevelt expostulating, “Bully! Bully!” when he was pleased with something.

We tend to think of bullies as mean, rough kids in the schoolyard or locker room, and more recently, online. And bullying that begins in childhood can continue into adulthood if the tactic has been successful, and the cost, low. Adult bullying may also be the result of observed and modeled behavior that appeared to ensure someone’s power and status over others.

Power Plays at Work

In the workplace, bullying always shows up as an exertion of power, whether it’s overt or covert. If the intent is to intimidate, force compliance, or ensure that the subject feels powerless, then it doesn’t matter much whether the bully comes across as pleasant and professional or ferocious and off-kilter; bullies may use any combination of shouting, direct or veiled threats, physical force, tears, shunning, or passive aggression to get what they want.

It’s remarkably easy for bullies to survive and persist in the workplace, which theoretically thrives on clarity, collaboration, and cooperation. That’s because, unfortunately, most of us don’t know what to do when we’re dealing with one — we tend to think that there’s something wrong with us, or that we’re somehow at fault. The bully maintains power through the illusion (or occasional reality) that if the victim were to attempt to clarify and sort things out it would create too much personal risk.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at several different types of bullies and see how it is possible to speak truth to their misuse of power, as well as how to differentiate between a bully of a boss and one who is merely stern or difficult.

Because this topic is becoming so prevalent, please send me an email if you have specific questions to ask or stories to tell.

Onward and upward,

LK

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