Compliments of Arenamontanus via Flickr

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant” (Naomi Wolf).       

After attending the MTSU Namie event, Brock Patterson (one of my graduate students) offered this insightful commentary:       

“It seems that bullies, whether in schools, workplaces, or marriages, act out not because of what they HAVE (control, power, authority, respect, and fear) but because of what they DON’T HAVE (self-esteem, self-confidence, friends, family, love, and relationships). Bullies are looking for an ’emotional back-rub’ from people who either do not recognize this need or don’t know how to give the support.”       

The goal of bullies is to strip their targets bare; to leave them exposed so that others’ focus is redirected from their flaws. They appear bullish and brazen, using power to put coworkers in their place. Although their reasons for bullying differ, most have the following in common:       

  1. a desire to create solidarity with the dominant group, or to bolster a lagging sense of esteem;
  2. a twisted attempt to raise their status by appearing more dominant.

Bullies usurp power to compensate for personal deficits. Ironically, the result is a grandiose self whose smallness is apparent. Bullies look for the perfect victim – those who keep their mouth shut, and who smile (or remain silent) in the face of attack. They rarely ply their trade with an equally matched opponent.       

Animosity appears when self control takes a backseat. This statement assumes that we are talking about the animal kingdom, and not about a more cerebrally advanced species. Bullies become the outgrowth of evil – debased, unholy, and unyielding in their attempt to destroy other people. I remember watching “The Omen,” in which demons masquerading as humans morphed into Rottweilers. In the article “Nightmares, Demons, and Slaves: Exploring the painful metaphor of workplace bullying,” victims described their tormenters as devil figures, as narcissistic dictators, and as two-faced pretenders who made their work life a living hell.       

Rudeness continues as long as it’s a low stakes game. If perpetrators are faced with the specter of public embarassment, they perhaps may be more careful. In our article “Formally shaming white collar criminals” (Ivancevich, Konopaske, and Gilbert, 2008) my co-authors and I discuss public shaming as an alternative to other forms of punishment. What about a wall of shame for behavioral infractions? Pearson and Porath (2009) explain that “little murders” occur on a continual basis each day within companies. We should punish those who rob the life force from their peers, those who “amputate their soul” and who “assassinate their spirit.”       

Workers may straighten up when they’re in others’ sights. McTaggart (2002) in The Field: The Secret Quest for the Universe argues that electrons behave differently when they’re being watched. In other words, the mere act of observation can change the course of events. If you’re in a supervisory position, you need to ask yourself the following questions:       

  • Is your sphere of influence a place where the nasty and childish run free?
  • Do people view co-workers’ behavior as an abomination?
  • Do they covert with you only because they’re scared of the consequences for non-compliance?
  • Are put-downs a way to display one’s dominance in the pecking order?

Make your firm a place in which people can shine – instead of a space in which their presence is outstripped.       

Incivility may be an opportunity, in that bad experiences can be the catalyst for something bigger. Begin a grass roots movement where you are. A great starting point is the formation of a study group focusing on The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What You can do about it. This book both quantifies the impact of bullying on business, and provides a plethora of tips to promote civil culture.       

We’ve all heard of the “killer app.” It’s a shame there’s no app to catch us in the act, and to redirect our harmful words. Perhaps if we saw people in their resplendent nature we would not be so quick to criticize them.       

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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One Response
  1. To address the chronically uncivil, the best approach is not the wall of shame (a suggestion in the original blog), but removal. Better yet, do the work and have the courage to make sure that you don’t let habitually uncivil people into your organization to begin with.

  2. Christine Pearson on April 7th, 2011 at 10:26 am