What if your best friend called you a bully? Would you brush it off? Would your feelings be hurt? Would you replay the incident and see if you did, in fact, need a behavior tune up? Would you apologize?
The line between leader and bully can be a fine one. In fact, powerful leaders and bullies share many of the same qualities. They tend to be:
- Charismatic (easily able to attract people towards them)
- Highly skilled social manipulators
Bullies can have powerful social skills and high self-esteem. We now realize that popular kids can be bullies. Even though you’d think these kids have everything going for them, they can feel the “need” to bully, either to establish or protect their social status.
The disheartening, but not surprising, news is that socially gifted bullies can rise through the ranks to leadership and continue bullying long after high school. Just look at the headlines about bullies in politics and business! Why do they do so well?
A recent University of Buffalo study looked at how well bullies with political skills (read: “social skills”) do on the job. Their finding: politically skilled bullies are quite successful at work. Drawing on earlier research, the Buffalo team believes socially skilled bullies can quickly identify weaknesses in others and use that knowledge to manipulate people to get what they want.
Not only that, these bully bosses are talented at hiding their negative behaviors from upper management, who often look only at results. (Was the deadline met? Did we achieve our sales target?) While focused on the end goal, senior management often ignores mean or abusive treatment of co-workers along the way. That leads to job dissatisfaction and high turnover, a big cost (in different ways) to both employers and employees.
Can we stop the vicious bully-leader cycle? The researchers recommend that employees’ performance reviews should include ratings for cooperation and good manners. Employees who use bully tactics will lose points, and there will be incentive for leaders to use collaborative ways to achieve their leadership goals. The researchers also suggest training employees to handle bullying behaviors better.
We say stop the cycle even earlier. Bullying behaviors typically start in childhood and become stronger and more sophisticated over the years, especially when bullying behavior is tolerated, and even rewarded with success and promotions. It’s difficult (but not impossible) to change long-standing, toxic behavior patterns in adults, years (and sometimes decades) later. Why not stop them early, when change is easy and there’s less to change?
Identify the kids with powerful social skills. It’s usually pretty easy to see them. They may be popular. Or they may be cruel – running rough over others, using physical or social manipulation. They may be both popular and cruel. In elementary and middle school, kids are learning how to use their social power, sometimes using it inappropriately.
That’s where adults and peers must step in. While kids are still young and learning, we can nudge them back onto the correct side of the “using my personal power” line. Give these kids:
(1) The “It’s Time To Change” message. “We love/like you, but your behavior must change,” along with consistent progress monitoring and encouragement to change, lets kids know their friends, and the adults around them, are serious, committed, and paying attention.
(2) Continued friendship from peers. Don’t bully the bully. Kids need consistent positive support and encouragement to make changes.
(3) Positive leadership positions at school, at home, and in the community. These capable kids, often frustrating (and frustrated) to work or be friends with, are truly like flowers starved for water. In the right environment, with adult guidance, positive peer pressure, and the opportunity to showcase their abilities for good, tremendous change can happen.
I’ve seen kids go from being disliked and feared to being elected to student government within a couple of years. The consistent love AND pressure to keep changing from teachers, parents, and peers really pay off.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, so be patient. Be prepared to hang in there with these strong kids, giving them time to find their leadership skills in a more positive way. There will be some mistakes along the way, but the results are worth it. You’re helping guide and mold amazing kids, the future leaders of tomorrow. We can help them learn how to use their social powers for good and still be strong leaders.
We must stop glamorizing and tolerating bullying behavior in our leaders in sports, business, entertainment, and politics. Donald Trump bellowing “You’re fired!”, Gordon Ramsay dumping an apprentice chef’s food into the trash, ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown yelling at and shoving staff, and Sir Alex Ferguson, recently retired Manchester United coach, badgering his own players or game referees should not be accepted as models of “normal” adult behavior.
Did you know that Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants have been awarded numerous Michelin stars, the highest mark of worldwide excellence for restaurants? Ramsay’s a smart, experienced, creative chef and business owner. We could all learn an enormous amount from him. We must ask ourselves: Why is it that we choose to learn bullying from him?
Looking the other way at these belligerent outbursts is not neutral – it’s silent acceptance and guarantees that the behavior will continue and escalate. Stop it early, before abusive school and workplace bullying become the new normal.
Leaders and bullies have a lot in common, but they differ in two important ways: Respect and compassion. Leaders care about others; bullies don’t. If we don’t want the leaders of tomorrow to be bullies, let’s teach them respect and compassion today.
L Blumen, Bullying Epidemic: Not Just Child’s Play, Camberley Press, 2011
R Shannon, “When A Mom Calls Your Kid The Other B-Word,” Beaconnews.ca, Jan 10, 2014
D Treadway et al, “Political Skill And The Job Performance Of Bullies,” Journal of Managerial Psychology, 2013