The Bully Label Has to Go

"Bullying" has in recent years become an industry in itself, launching careers and businesses in consulting, coaching, testing, and training. It is indeed a brand.
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Whenever I hear the word "bully," I run for cover. I don't know what scares me more -- the memories of venomous torment from nasty brutes with waggish tongues, or the troubling tide of anti-bullying rhetoric that I fear will do far more to embolden than control such mean-spirited people. But I have discovered that to even discuss these concerns often leads to accusations, stereotypes and silencing responses nearly as aggressive as "bullying" itself.

The trend in anti-bullying rhetoric, policies and laws is intended to bring an end to the interpersonal aggression that dehumanizes, humiliates and seriously wounds children and adults in organizational settings such as schools, workplaces, and communities. In that regard, I applaud the objective. But in recent years the strategy that has been adopted toward this end has been flawed in many respects. First among these flaws has been the manner in which people are treated as things rather than people with the use of the term "bully."

Calling a person a "bully" may be effective in bringing an aggressive individual down to size, but that very quality is what makes the label so problematic. The use of any derogatory label to describe a person is dehumanizing and promotes stereotypes. When we dehumanize a person with a label, we make it easier to attack them. In warfare, soldiers learn to kill other people by referring to them with terms associated with animals, monsters, evil, or any of a number of names which make it easier to see them as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity and hence, a threat to group survival.

In organizational settings, the increasing use of the bully label is similarly used to defend eliminating people from the group for the good of the group. But the label is not likely to stick to anyone in a position of organizational power; it will stick to the person that those in organizational power want to eliminate -- the whistleblower who is "too negative," the high performer who is "too demanding," or the target of discrimination who is "always complaining." All that is needed to achieve that end is to begin the branding, and group consensus will follow provided organizational leadership wants that person gone.

Autocratic world leaders have a keen understanding of how this process operates. Certain people can be eliminated -- by their own citizen counterparts -- merely by creating classes of people who are considered first, different from the rest of the group, then by conferring value upon that difference, and finally, by casting that difference as a threat to the others. By creating a class of people who are considered to have less value than others, and not being worthy of the same rights as others, it is not necessary to establish that a person's behavior or thinking is a problem; all that is necessary to eradicate them is to persuade others that the person belongs to the disfavored class. That is done most effectively by simply stating, and repeating, the disfavored label upon them, until others adopt it as well.

This same process operates in organizational settings by creating an ambiguous class of people who will not be tolerated among the group. By an ambiguous class, I mean that the characterizations that apply to the group are seemingly clear yet sufficiently fuzzy that almost anyone can at one time or another be characterized as belonging to the group. Whose behavior becomes characterized as offensive, unacceptable, verbally abusive, arbitrary and demanding -- behaviors grouped under the label of "bully" -- is more likely to reflect relationships of power than individual character. For example, the worker who has filed a grievance only to become the target of unrelenting retaliation is likely to become defensive, unhappy, angry and to file grievances -- the very acts which can quickly be labeled by management as offensive, abusive, unacceptable, demanding and arbitrary -- and hence, the acts of a "bully." The next step for management is to promote consensus.

The most effective way to strip anyone of value and deprive them of fundamental rights - whether that be human rights, civil rights, or even basic de-facto rights to fair play, safety and dignity at school or in the workplace -- is to achieve a consensus that they belong in the less valued class. That consensus is readily achieved in organizational settings because those in positions of power influence collective perceptions and self interest, and humans will almost always align their perceptions with their self interest regardless of the facts.

Anti-bulling policies are particularly effective weapons for autocratic organizations because they appeal to our social vulnerability, fears and self interest. By promoting policies that suggest bullies will not be tolerated, the group is appeased; after all, who wants to be bullied? Once such policies are in place, however, shunning, name calling, gossip and elimination will follow anyone who is branded a bully -- while ironically, these very behaviors would otherwise be considered bullying themselves were they not sanctioned by those in positions of leadership.

These concerns are not to suggest that aggression in organizations should be tolerated. My concern is that the current bullying rhetoric promotes a stereotype of "bullies" and "bullying" that is ripe for abuse and escalating aggression. It is far more useful, in my view, to discuss collective or social aggression rather than "bullying," and to talk about aggressive people, rather than "bullies." By shifting the discussion to the behavior itself, and by talking about people rather than things (and "bullies" are indeed treated as things in this rhetoric), the wide range of aggressive behaviors that are exhibited in organizational settings is more visible, and the range of solutions more open to discussion.

"Bullying" has in recent years become an industry in itself, launching careers and businesses in consulting, coaching, testing, and training. It is indeed a brand, whether through the emotional responses the term is intended to elicit, or through the lasting scars on anyone who, for whatever reason, gets branded as a bully. Some people are indeed aggressive and abusive and their behavior merits intervention. But to more objectively determine who these people are, it's high time we step off the bully pulpit, and look to the many forms of organizational aggression that are manifest in schools, workplaces and communities. Only by thinking outside the bully box will we begin to behave more compassionately toward those with whom we work and live, and less like "bullies" ourselves.

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