leadership, life lessons, management, work life

Written From The Bully Pulpit


The new documentary dealing with bullying of school age children is getting a lot of well-deserved press.  The excerpts I have seen and heard evoke my tears, rage and yes, personal memories.  Nothing can justify what these children endure on a daily basis.  There is no rationale, explanation, excuse or defiant bluster that can in any way mitigate the pain – both physical and psychic – to which these kids are subjected.  In these situations there is no such thing as ‘toughening up’ in order to take it.  The only acceptable response to such behavior is that it stop.

The reality is, bullying doesn’t stop with adulthood.  There are bullies in the workplace – different from those who harass others within the context of federal and state EEO and Sexual Harassment Prevention statutes.  There’s time enough to write about the latter; my passion this morning is directed to the leaders and managers who are aware of the bullying that occurs on their watch.  While I agree that education and zero tolerance must begin with and for our youngest children, the fact that such behavior is deeply affecting adults in the workplace suggests that perhaps we need a bifurcated approach.  In more basic terms – we should not condone any hostile or aggressive behavior in our offices – hard stop.

“In a prevalence study of U.S. workers, 41.4% of respondents reported experiencing psychological aggression at work in the past year representing 47 million U.S. workers (Schat, Frone & Kelloway, 2006).  The research found that 13% or nearly 13 million workers experienced psychological aggression on a weekly basis”.  This is inconceivable to me – and I hope you are as enraged as I am.

When I started working at the firm, we had an unwritten (but enforced) ‘no asshole’ rule.  I found this to be part of the firm’s value system that I respected the most.  The vetting process was almost absurdly extensive – potential associates and partners traveled to as many offices as possible, meeting as many people as possible to learn about the firm and vice versa.  Believe it or not there were some pretty impressive business producers who were not pursued after this exercise – they couldn’t pass the ‘no asshole’ rule.  Was the firm replete with only genuine, engaged, gracious, respectful people?  Of course not – sometimes somebody made it through.  Parenthetically, none of these people were put into positions of power; their sphere of influence was limited as much as possible and of greatest importance – they were told why their contribution would continue to be valued in money, but never in leadership roles.

That was then, this is now and I’m not there anymore.  Further comments about whether or not such a philosophy is still in practice is specious and of no value to this dialogue.  But I will always applaud the organization for uncompromisingly articulating its abhorrence of bullying and those responsible for its horrible consequences.

Aggressive behavior in the workplace can range from subtle to overt.  Being the frequent recipient of invalid hostile criticism, receiving continuous unwarranted and/or fictitious blame, being sworn at, experiencing social and professional isolation and/or exclusion are examples of bullying.  I ask that you apply a ‘reasonable person standard’ to this description, for I am aware that an occasional misguided comment or decision doesn’t meet any threshold that is being discussed here.

As a current or future leader, you must be acutely aware of the ramifications of such toxicity.  If you consider the impact purely from an economic perspective, you will find decreased performance, higher turnover, distorted information flow and high levels of distrust.  Bummer for your profitability.  As a compassionate leader, the consequences are equally dire – disaffected employees, higher incidences of medical leaves, depression, misdirected frustration and criticism, dysfunctional collaboration,etc.  Bummer for morale.

To me, the larger issue is the need for us to address this with unrelenting, unwavering commitment in our schools and in our companies.  It is not enough to say that we are anti-bullying – we need to step up and be as unequivocal in our actions as we are in our words.  I realize I do not sound like a compassionate therapist here – the workplace is not the backdrop for working through the long standing issues that plague most bullies.  The bully is hurting your people, diluting any humanistic value system that your organization holds dear and eroding your profitability and reputation.  Zero tolerance policies are truly that – without caveat, rationalization and multiple do-overs.  Your people are entitled to be led by the best you have to offer – and that includes establishing and invoking a ‘no asshole’ rule.Image


15 thoughts on “Written From The Bully Pulpit”

  1. Thanks Deb – I think we need to continue this dialogue relentlessly until we arrive at some conclusions that are going to dramatically change the nightmare that these kids – and adults – live everyday.

  2. Outstanding topic and brilliant points, as always. Interesting note – I did have a zero tolerance policy as did the student handbook I was instructed to follow. I was an administrator at this time. I would say, without a doubt, that for every student on the receiving end of my zero tolerance speech and consequences, there was a principal above me or a central office administrator above me used his power to “bend” the rules as he saw fit. Pretty trying times for a woman in profession that should hold protecting children and keeping them safe and secure while promoting learning. Many years later, the bile rises in my throat to think of what continues to go on. Doesn’t matter what the policy is, the ‘buy-in” has to be there. Generally, the teachers “buy-in”, I’ll leave it to your readers to figure out at what level the policy on bullying in school, (and not all schools, I’m treading on personal experience ground here), falls apart. You hit home with this one. Keep writing. Don’t stop!

    …And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.
    Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a

    1. I wonder what would happen if each of us took it upon ourselves to make a difference in at least one life. I’m not hubristic enough to think I can save a life, though I aspire to when and if I can. But to try and stop an injustice, not ‘bend’ the rules in the interest of expediency…we don’t know how much of a difference each of us can make just by choosing to be heard. Thanks Jo…

  3. as my dear husband says: when dealing with assholes bring toilet paper , not expectations….sounds like your firm did exactly that! great , insightful and motivating blog. thank you

  4. Earlier today I read a post written by David Aaker titled Steve Jobs and the Bobby Knight school of leadership. Both Steve Jobs and Bobby Knight were extraordinarily successful in their pursuits. For all of their talents and success you could make the case that both were bullies and it’s doubtful that either could pass your “A-Hole” test. I guess the question is, does the end justify the means. Is it ok to be a tyrant if you’re winning basketball games or building an empire?

    I would like to think it’s possible to be able to treat people respectfully and be successful. What do you think? Would these guys pass your test?

    1. Interesting question Frank, and I would like to believe that the end doesn’t justify the means. Steve Jobs – visionary extraordinaire (as I write this on my iPad) and bully a la Bobby Knight, Jack Welch – Capt of the Bully Club and gifted with his ability to turn a failing company around. And I know they wouldn’t pass the test. I agree with you – I think that human decency and respect need not be sacrificed in the name of success – we see too many examples of its effectiveness. Perhaps it is naive, but if there re solid boundaries of behavior that people cannot cross or their employment will be terminated, their roes diminished, etc – I think we could go far in limiting the impact and number of bullies in the workplace. THank you for the thought-provoking comment!

  5. Mimi,

    This post and the other comments have made me think about the work environments that have maximized my employee morale, motivation, and productivity. And none of them involved bullies.

    I don’t think that being compassionate and supportive means being weak. And I don’t think leaders have to degrade employees in order for there to be discipline. You can still have very high standards while still treating people with respect.

    I believe it’s a really big mistake to assume that the bullying was the reason for the success in the examples that Frank gave. I would argue that the success was achieved in spite of the bullying.

    If an employee needs to be bullied in order to be productive, then I think either the wrong employee has been hired or the manager isn’t utilizing other positive, more effective management techniques. And bullying may work in the short run, but a lot of people will leave as soon as they get the chance.

    Also, I’ve played sports most of my life. And I’ve had some very demanding coaches. But I knew they were always coming from a place of trying to help me and not of being degrading.

    1. Hi Greg, I agree with you on all counts, and I think Frank would do (though he can chime in anytime he wants). There is nothing about fear, hostile coercion or aggressiveness that propels people to their best effort. The caveat may be that fear can move someone quickly towards a desired end – but the motivation is avoidance, not attainment of success. And the price of course is humiliation, a diminishment of self esteem and ultimately an immediate lack of trust. I appreciate your comments and truly believe that this is the kind of dialogue which can prompt each of us to advocate for the positive, productive environments in which everyone – children and adults – is entitled.

  6. Hi Mimi,

    Thanks for the feedback. I completely agree. And I know Frank was just asking the question, so it would be great to hear his thoughts on this.

    1. Thanks Stephanie – this topic so saddens and troubles me. As we wtatch these tragedies unfold everyday, I keep thinking that we need to re-double our efforts to eradicate intolerance. I applaud the efforts that the schools are making, but feel that the workplace needs to step up to the plate too (these kids don’t get this aggressiveness from nowhere). Intolerance and aggressive behavior should be a hard, unequivocal line that employers act on immeidately once it is crossed. No excuses, no rationalizations. I appreciate your thoughts…Mimi

  7. Workplace bullying definitely turns workplaces to war zones and the effects are always catastrophic, more than anyone can bear. Thanks for the timely information.

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