snake-bite-1398530Lots of attention is appropriately focused today on reducing bullying among children. But the greatest obstacle to reducing bullying among children is the many examples children see of how openly our society rewards adult bullies.

What is bullying? We now recognize bullying is not only physical intimidation. Bullying is demeaning, belittling, or otherwise mentally or physically abusing someone to improve your own position, particularly when it includes enlisting others to support the demeaning. Often making fun of the victim is part of the bullying tactics.  Most bullies are not the brutish, dumb villains from television.  In my experience most are intelligent manipulators.

Where do children observe adults being rewarded for this behavior?

Some of the most visible politicians win elections by insulting and demeaning their opponents. It is not just a recent phenomenon.  It became particularly popular to belittle political opponents by making fun of them in the 1990s.  The most sly political bully I have witnessed was a democrat, and the most blatant was a republican.  Unfortunately, millions of people supported the behavior of each.

That is the problem–adults tend to support bullies when we view them as on our side.

Is it different from bullying among kids?  Absolutely not.  Both serve the same purpose, to improve your own position or image by harming the position or image of someone else.  How do you explain to children that behavior is wrong when you are a child, but it is ok if you are an adult?

Bullying requires no additional skill from a politician than it requires of any junior high bully. I cannot think of one situation where that skill is desirable in a public official.

Some of the most well-known journalists and media commentators are popular because they belittle and make fun of their targets. Some sports commentators are more cruel and personal when they criticize amateurs than professionals.  It would be a little easier to justify if it was limited to criticizing athletes getting paid millions.  But professionals athletes can fire back.  Amateurs are more helpless, so some bully journalists (as all bullies) prefer targets unable to fire back.  Commentators are paid to give their opinions, their job and their excuse.  Which illustrates the point about kids seeing adults being rewarded for bullying.

Some of the most popular political commentators are even more condescending than sports journalists. Anyone who disagrees with some political commentators’ opinions are routinely condemned as intent on destroying American.  The more belittling they are, the more popular and successful they seem to be.  Sometimes their interpretation of the constitution is “I have a constitutional right to express my opinion, and anyone who expresses disagreement with my opinion is violating my constitutional rights.”

High visibility athletes are sometimes praised for expressing disdain for other players. One year, as the selection for college football’s Heisman Trophy was approaching, a national sports commentator stated he would not vote for a particular player (Peyton Manning) because of his nice guy demeanor.  The well-known commentator said football players are supposed to be cocky and have an attitude, and Peyton’s nice guy demeanor was not good for the game.  (I considered suggesting a few more players assaulting women might also help improve the game’s image.  But that would be sinking to the condescending humor bullies like to use, and I am teetering on that already.)

How many kids who play grade school and high school football were listening to those “expert” comments about the attitude football players should exude?

Bullying by adults is often disguised or explained as constructive criticism or voicing a personal opinion. Constructive criticism and the ability to voice opinions are important to any healthy organization and to society.  But a condescending tone denoting “I dare you to disagree” exposes the true intent, which is to establish that the bully’s right to free expression is absolute while anyone else’s right to free expression is limited to whether they are expressing agreement with the bully.    

The same culture of rewarding bullies exists in business. I was always amazed by how often I saw corporations promote bullies who regularly demeaned others as a way to establish credibility for themselves.

I was in a meeting with a manager with a multinational corporation and the attitude of not appreciating anyone having a differing opinion was overwhelming. I was surprised because it was different from attitudes I had observed from other managers in that company.  Later someone told me that person was needed in that department to stand up to the “strong” managers in other departments.  I encountered plenty of those strong managers during my career.  I strongly disagree that the solution is ever to add more of them.

Growing up on a farm, I sometimes encountered a killdeer. Killdeer are birds that will sometimes dive toward you and as they get close to your head will make a shrill cry to frighten or distract you away from their nest.  That is what those “strong” managers reminded me of.  I often found that the “stronger” those managers behaved, the greater the problems they feared I might uncover.

Pat Summit in one of her books said, “People who say yes to you all the time are, in my opinion, insulting you. They assume you are either too immature or unstable or egotistical to handle the truth.”  My experience is that managers who do not tolerate differing opinions are the weakest managers in any organization for exactly the reasons Pat describes.  They are too immature or unstable or egotistical to deal with reality.  How effective can anyone be if their actions are based on an illusory world created around their ego?  In my experience, they can be very effective getting their way in the short term, while being subtly destructive over the long term.

Why does society reward bullies? There are diverse surface reasons.  Cohorts go along to keep the peace or just from the practical reality that those above will support the bully.  (I have had multiple C-suite executives tell me even when the issue regarded compliance with federal law, “It will never matter if you are right, you will not be able to win any battle with them.”)  Bullies tend to win short term contests, and many people want to be on the side of the perceived winner.  I have also had C-suite executives tell me that a certain bully is important to an organization because they get things done.  I have never witnessed a bully accomplish anything other than take credit for what others accomplished, which is something at which they do tend to be highly skilled.

If the bully recognizes someone in authority being averse to confrontation, the bully will take advantage of that.  Bullies tend to divide people into those they want to impress/manipulate and those they want to control/intimidate. Often those two groups perceive themselves as dealing with a completely different person.  Bullies are usually charming to those they want to please/manipulate, and demeaning to those they want to control/intimidate.  You have probably watched movies with a plot about a woman attracted to someone charming before the marriage, then the woman encounters the bully after the marriage.  In organizations most of those to whom the bully is charming reject any suggestion of the person others must deal with–because that is not the person they know.

What causes someone to behave as a bully is more straightforward than why they are tolerated.

The chapter Camouflage and Faux Confidence discusses ego.  Ego is a façade used to hide insecurities and is a valuable tool when it is controlled.  When I was much younger, a few times I backed down charging dogs with a façade of not being afraid.  I was lucky that the charges by those dogs were also just façades, and the dogs backed off.  In many situations it is wise to exude confidence, such as in a crisis when others need to see confidence in you, on a job interview, on a date, in certain types of confrontations….

But when your ego controls you, your insecurities are controlling you.  Out-of-control ego is the derivation of a bully.  It can be desperate, unpredictable, and even vicious.  Picture Adolph Hitler as an extreme example, huge insecurities hidden behind a huge, desperate ego.

Tremendous amounts of organizational resources are wasted protecting and stroking out-of-control egos. It can be true in families, teams, associations, corporations, governments and society. 

Bullying should be as unacceptable in organizations as it should be among children. If we continue to openly reward adult bullies in society, we will have a very difficult time stopping it among children who see adult bullies being rewarded.

If you are in a position of authority, it is important to the organization that you see beyond how people act while immediately around you. Always be aware that everyone who reports to you is modifying their behavior to some degree.  You have as much responsibility to support those two, three and more layers down in the organization as you do those who report immediately to you.  If you think otherwise, you are rationalizing and probably shirking your responsibilities to the organization.  If you have bullies under your supervision, you can manage them by managing and clearly communicating your expectations.  Give them praise for working with all others as opposed to only working with those they view as influential.  Be cautious of praising them when they seek to elevate their importance above others.

All of us should consciously strive to not reward those who seek to make themselves look good by demeaning others.  Strive not to let yourself be manipulated by people telling you what you want to hear.  (In classes for supervisors I would tell attendees that when I see an employee in another department just telling their supervisor what that supervisor wants to hear, I think “brown noser.”  But when my employee always tells me what I want to hear, I think they are the best employee I’ve got.  When you see someone else making a mistake, take the time to ask yourself if you do the same thing.