Once a Bully Always a Bully?

Once a Bully, Always a Bully?

I was inspired to write this post after reading two blogs I regularly visit. Over at Women’s Ally, editor Diahann Boock posted a poll asking visitors if there was a bully in their workplace. To my surprise, nearly 70% of respondents said yes. I then saw a post by Nikki over at Mommy Factor where she explored the best way to teach her young son to stick up for himself.  It got me thinking. Do children who are bullies grow up to become adults who are bullies?

As a high school freshman I had my own experience with bullying. As one of a handful of black students at my high school in Portland, OR I experienced merciless bullying from a clique of African-American girls who were bussed in from a different part of town. I was teased for “acting and sounding White” accused of being a snob and generally bullied for not looking the way they expected. My locker was defaced. I received threatening notes and on several occasions was physically threatened. Some of this behavior took place in front of my teachers who did nothing.

Flash forward twenty years. As a young account executive at a large New York PR firm, I worked with a number of managing directors with legendary tempers. One MD was a notorious bully who would frequently curse and get in the faces of young associates in front of their colleagues. It was not unusual to see an account executive in tears in the bathroom. While this MD was known to be a terrible manager with anger management issues, the partners at my firm chose to handle the situation by not giving him direct reports.  In short, because he was great with clients and made the firm a lot of money, his bad behavior was overlooked.  Not surprisingly, the turnover among the junior ranks stayed around 40%.

I’ve carried the lessons of these early life experiences with me today as a mother and an executive. As a mother, I know I’ll be very proactive if D2 experiences bullying at school. Equally important, if D2 (god forbid) exhibits bullying behavior, he will be held accountable by me and his father. I want him to understand that predatory and cruel behavior is not only unacceptable it’s totally against the values of our family. I want him to understand that to be a great leader, he needs compassion, kindness and an inclination to help those who can’t help themselves. While I’m no clinical psychologist (though I’m married to one), I can’t help but believe that children who are bullies are inclined to grow up to be adults who are bullies.

As a senior executive, I have zero tolerance for bullying behavior. Too often, I’ve seen conflict averse managers look the other way or excuse away work place bullies because they are deemed too valuable to lose. Work place bullies derive their power from the belief they won’t be held accountable for their actions.  They destroy team morale, are bad for corporate culture and contribute to poor organizational performance. The directors in my group know that when bullying is encountered (and thank goodness it has been infrequent), we deal with the issue right then and there. No questions. No excuses. Ever.

I’m very glad that the issue of school bullying is finally being taken seriously for the problem that it is. If more adults take the problem seriously in schools, we may be able to short-circuit behavior that becomes a lifetime practice in adulthood. What do you think? Do children who are bullies grow up to be adults who are bullies? Did you ever experience bullying as a child?  How did you handle it?  Have you experienced workplace bullying? If you are a recovering bully, why did you do it?

Showing 3 comments
  • Diahann Boock

    Thanks for the shout out! Based on the poll results is is a real problem. It takes more leaders like you to have zero tolerance. Any executive that looks the other way because of the bottom line should be required to spend 24/7 with the bully to fully understand the impact.

    Good one!

    • bossmomonline

      Thanks, Diahann! I’m always amazed at the amount of bad behavior that is tolerated in the work place. I think part of the issue is that these individuals have a serious lack of insight into how their behavior is impacting their colleagues. Because they are winning business or charming clients, their behavior is negatively reinforced with bonuses, etc. I really believe that part of how any executive or senior level manager should be evaluated should also include their ability to nurture and cultivate talent. If this happened more, I think we’d see the numbers in your poll go down.

      • Beth Wilson

        Your comments on children and some adults today was very insightful. I have a sophmore in high school and two fourth graders and everyday I hear about bullies at their schools. It saddens me that children like these are usually raised in at atmosphere where this behavior is acceptable and usually they are the targets of such behavior. As they grow up it follows them into adulthood with one exception. They have learned how to refine this behavior to where it is not at obvious as before. Bullies need to be stopped in their tracks I agree but, I feel that this is a tough journey when good examples are not set at home.
        My niece was jumped after school one day and was beaten in the face just because a little girl did like the way she looked at her. In the office the mother arrived and blamed my niece for “looking” at her daughter and said “she asked for it” followed by “My daughter will fight for her rights”. This is the type of up bringing that children today are faced with. I wished there was one clear cut fix to this problem however, deep down I know it will be a long battle for everyone involved.

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