Bullies in business

Funny sports nerd flexing fake muscle drawn on the chalkboard

I chatted with a friend recently about a pressing topic among parents and in the media of late – bullying. We discussed a situation we were aware of for which we happen to know both kids involved, as well as their families. Both sets of parents are concerned, involved, and loving people. So how it is that a “good kid from a good family” came to be bullying someone? I don’t believe for a second that bullies are born – they are made. And they can be made quite inadvertently by caring parents who simply want to raise confident, successful kids. I think this incongruence results from a faulty framework about what that means and how it is achieved.

I’m bringing this here for discussion because obviously the onward march of time demands that school yard bullies grow up and get jobs. The way the bullying looks may change, but the underlying belief systems and way of interacting with and treating others does not. Instead of playground taunts, cruel exclusion, and physical terrorizing, we see verbal assaults in meetings, strategic undermining behind closed doors, veiled threats, and emotional blackmail. These things happen every day in workplaces across the world – it’s estimated that as many as 1 in 4 employees experience bullying at work – and they often go unaddressed. Why? I think the factors that create bullies also produce environments in which they thrive: detrimental beliefs about what it means to be strong versus weak and what it takes to be successful.

Two damaging core beliefs are “I’m not enough” and “there isn’t enough.” Bullies bully because they are afraid. They were taught that life is a zero sum game, and that they are what they achieve, so if they don’t win, they are losers. People who worry they aren’t enough have inferiority complexes. They feel threatened by others’ competence and seek to knock them down a peg or five. People who deeply believe scarcity, and not abundance, is the natural world order strive to win and dominate at all cost. Success, to them, means winning. They act cocky and arrogant in a misguided attempt to portray confidence, and because, for them, to show humility is akin to showing weakness. They can’t risk showing vulnerability because they assume everyone else is operating with the same cutthroat rules of the game.

So what if we flip these beliefs? What if you are always enough as you are? What if there is enough to go around? When people feel vulnerable and also safe, there is no jockeying for position. There is no cutting people down so you can stand taller on their fallen bodies. Sometimes it takes more strength to be humble, to sacrifice your own interests, to give versus get. Truly confident, successful people don’t feel like they have to win in every situation. They understand that not everything is a competition, and that there can be more than one “winner.” They don’t equate their Self with their accomplishments, so they aren’t threatened by losing, and even feel good about leaving something on the table for others when they “win.” Finally, confident, successful people take the big-picture view. They know that lasting success is not made by a single, lone-wolf driven “win” but the result of the ongoing, concerted efforts of people with a common vision. Don’t get me wrong – competition is part of our world and a relevant aspect of doing business. But playing the game well also demands good sportsmanship – seeing others not as “the other” but a worthy, even valued, opponent – not someone to crush.

If we want our schools, our workplaces, our world to be one in which people inspire one another to succeed instead of seek win at all costs, we have to dismantle and reimagine the belief systems that drive bullying behavior and the cultures that propagate them. We need to revisit the idea of success and begin to think more expansively – what do we really want to achieve?



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