Keys for transforming bullies

A bully is often defined as “A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.” The damage of bullying is great, but I would argue that, more importantly, the very definition of the phenomenon is blocking organizations from solving this problem!

Harrison Psychological Associates reports that the business costs of bullying to employers where people are being harassed is more than $180 million in lost time and productivity over a two year period. The costs to businesses come in the form of  loses of productivity, turnover, operating costs, and the quality of product/service deliverables (see a full report on the topic).

But the real problem with bullies isn’t their behavior; it is the fact they don’t want to change.

When my career shifted from the military to corporate, I continued to meet senior military officers who had been recruited for senior executive positions. For some of them, habits that were considered acceptable in one environment were perceived as bullying behavior in another. The interesting thing was, some were more than willing to make the needed adjustments while others refused to see anyone else’s point of view.

Is bullying truly a behavior, or is it an inability to change behavior?

In our work with clients we find that real bullies (those who refuse to change) lack access to three predominant Key Strategies:

  • Introspection and emotional articulation: When lacking this Key Strategy, people are not aware of their own emotions. They are controlled by their emotions instead of the other way around, and they refuse to admit they are experiencing the emotions assigned to them. However, many people who start off without this Key Strategy can acquire it. People who act like bullies start expressing how they feel. Instead of accusing others or dictating how things ARE going to be, they start expressing their expectations.
  • Separating facts from assumptions: If you have ever met a bully who genuinely believes his/her opinions are facts, or someone who manipulates other people’s opinions as facts (everyone knows that…etc.) you are already familiar with the outcomes of lacking this Key Strategy. Once this strategy is in place, ex-bullies start to accept that there are more than one perspective and that what they see as the only truth possible is actually only one option of many possible perspectives.
  • Effective control: This is probably the most obvious of the bully related Key Strategies. Bullies have ineffective ways of trying to obtain control. It is imperative not to try to take control away from bullies, but to replace their aggressive control-seeking patterns with a more collaborative form of control. This type of control creates in others a desire to follow rather than simply following through force.

Some bullies do not want to acquire new Key Strategies. In our experience those really deserve the title while others merely need a better system for changing. How will you know if the bullies in your organization are the real kind, or the kind who merely need support?

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