Over my decades as a coach I have worked with many clients accused of bullying. It’s never pretty. The accused person may have been subjected to a formal investigation and may have lost their job: most likely they are still aflame with rage at the ‘unfairness’ of it all.
Most of the attention over the behaviour of Dominic Raab, the British politician found to have behaved ‘aggressively’, and forced to resign, has focused on his motivation. Commentators have spent many words drawing distinctions between whether or not he intended to humiliate his civil service staff. Some have tried to claim that it isn’t bullying if there is no intention to intimidate. This is a false trail. There is no standard definition of bullying and motivation is not the point.
How it starts
Little has been said about the inner life of the so-called bully. Where does it start? How do they get to assume that this behaviour is allowable?
No exceptions: it starts in childhood. There are several possible scenarios. The most common is a child who grows up in a household with parents who cannot regulate their emotions. They have no effective ways of managing conflict. There are slammed doors, there is shouting. The child is terrified. They do not feel safe.
There are two common ways to react. One is with fear. Here the child becomes the golden son or daughter who is no trouble, the peacemaker, the polite go-between. This child grows up to be a people-pleaser who stifles their rage and disappointment, accused by some colleagues of lacking assertiveness. Alternatively, the child vents their anger. As they get older they never learn restraint when they don’t get what they want. They resort to verbal abuse, just as their parents did.
Another common scenario is the child of ultra-critical parents who believe they are doing the best for their children by demanding excellence: 100% in exams; prizes; first team; external validation. If this fails to happen they give harsh criticism and withdraw attention. The child comes to equate ‘love’ with achievement.
When you look into family history there is usually a long generational trail of similar parenting, sometimes associated with major trauma – poverty, escaping war or persecution, serious illness, sexual or physical abuse. Without self awareness we blindly reproduce the same behaviour with our own children.
Promotion as a reward for over-achievement
Let’s say the child of this upbringing is academically gifted. They try to meet their need for love and acceptance with intensely hard work, long hours and a punishing need to be to be top at all costs. The alternative is terrifying. What are you without your self-set ‘high standards’ and commitment to ambition? You have no idea of your own vulnerability because you have buried it so deeply. You prize your intellectual smartness. You get promoted because employers like your work ethic. As you rise in the hierarchy you form the belief that you are surrounded by idiots. So what if you upset a few weak people en route, they should pull themselves together!
I have collected feedback on this kind of boss.
‘We call him Mr Rottweiler. If you have something to tell him, you go into the room, throw in some meat, say what you have to say while he gobbles it up – and then get out fast.’
‘Her idea of giving feedback on a document was to start and end with personal insults, slurs about where you went to school and wondering aloud if you were educationally subnormal, all in front of a full meeting.’
The trouble is that although threatening behaviour gets short term results, its long term impact is disastrous. The best people leave quietly. Those who remain become paralyzed. They never know who or what is going to be picked on next. It could be your grammar, how you dress, failing to meet an unreasonable deadline, the allegedly woeful quality of your ideas. If you don’t agree with this intimidating boss then you can’t win. Their opinion is the only one that counts. Defensive behaviour becomes the norm. People do the minimum. They avoid risk, they avoid innovation and challenge. They avoid meetings where they could be shouted at. The boss’s belief that they are the only person doing the thinking becomes true. They are now a decision bottleneck; their need to overwork ramps up, 18 hour days become their norm.
Inside they are desperate though this is not how they express it to themselves. How can you maintain those high standards all by yourself? You can’t. You fire a few people and replace them with others who soon behave in the apparently spineless way of their predecessors. They, too, get fired.
In the past this was how it went. The organization would put up with dysfunctional behaviour for as long as they believed in the person’s alleged brilliance, and this could be for a long time. Today, regardless of seniority or ‘brilliance’, people lodge formal grievances and expect them to be taken seriously. There are whistleblower schemes which will protect their anonymity. HR can no longer feebly shrug its shoulders. The true cost becomes apparent: far from getting high performance, standards will be slipping inexorably. This is why it doesn’t matter what that boss’s intentions are, though few set out to intimidate. The behaviour has all-round destructive impact on the quality of people’s work.
Let’s say there is now an investigation. The problematical boss is incensed. After all I’ve done for them! Look at my high standards! Look at my professionalism! If people got upset it was their own stupid fault! They shouldn’t be woke, so snowflaky. They were opposing me, it was a conspiracy to prevent reform. This boss has become so separated from their emotions that they are unable to recognise or value emotions in others. They have lost any kindness they once had. They have become detached from bodily awareness: they prize their ‘toughness’. A punishing schedule at the gym or training for marathons is all part of how they keep going. They’re puzzled when they develop hypertension, mysterious headaches or gut problems.
It is impossible to keep the investigation confidential and news of it leaks out. More evidence piles in. They have to leave. They may make a faux apology where they are sorry for upsetting people but conspicuously not sorry for the behaviour.
That’s the stage when they may turn up in my coaching room. Their dominant emotion is still anger. Others see them as perpetrators but they see themselves as victims. They can’t access words to describe their feelings. Their personal lives may be in ruins because they are not pussycats at home, they do the same behaviour there. Sometimes they are already estranged from their children: today’s teenagers are unforgiving of arrogance or intimidation.
These clients are profoundly sorry for themselves.
I am sorry too. Their behaviour has been odious, of that there is usually little doubt, but I see the lonely, scared child of emotionally immature parents who is emotionally immature themselves and has no way of getting their needs met other than by force. Now that has been exposed, what’s left?
With a client who is willing to learn, we start from the ground up. We look at how the behaviour developed. We see it as the survival mechanism that it truly was in childhood, but that has long outlived its usefulness.
I offer them ideas about alternative, more effective ways of influencing. We look at the difference between criticism and feedback, between intention and impact, including why yelling does not get you what you want and never has. We examine the implausibility of their claim that they cannot prevent their angry outbursts. We identify the differences between shame, guilt and remorse. We discuss how not to be right all the time. We consider how to make amends. We seek the healthy self that is always there somewhere. We explore what it means to be emotionally mature.
This is hard and often painful work. The tipping point is when the client can accept at least some personal responsibility for the mayhem they have caused. At some level, people in these situations do understand that their lifetime habits of aggression have come at a high personal cost in mental and physical wellbeing. That is often where the long path begins to a different way of being and to a renewed career.
Photo: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons