The bullying-awareness climate marks an interesting turning point in human civilization.

I don’t recall such a public focus on bullying before, even though bullying is something most of us have seen or experienced in our lives. I especially appreciate articles by experts such as About Leaders author Dr. Annette Roter that can help us recognize bullying and improve our understanding of the topic. If you haven’t read Dr. Roter’s articles, I highly encourage you to do so.

We have an opportunity to evolve, so I hope the energy and momentum behind the public focus is sustainable. Unfortunately, public energy and momentum can involve the same nature that goes awry with bullying and as such, may not produce real solutions.

Deep questions remain in the balance, such as, is society ready for this next evolutionary step? Do we have what it takes to evolve above bullying?

Maybe or maybe not – but each of us can answer that question for ourselves.

An Unconventional Truth

You may wonder why I ask such questions since they don’t seem to jive with the conventional view of bullying – that it is anomalous and rare and comes from the dark corners of the population where we find criminals and otherwise mal-adaptive people.

To refer to society evolving above bullying suggests it is commonplace or normal. Such notions are incompatible with typical thoughts about bullying because we have grown to believe bullying is abnormal. What I am indeed saying here is that bullying is both common and stems from normative human nature.

Whether you get anything from this article or not may hinge on how open you are to this viewpoint.

Bear in mind there are many things about us that are normal or natural, but are not good. I am not saying bullying is okay. We are an imperfect species that, at our best, are much less perfect than we think or would admit.

The more we know about the less-than-best part of us, the more empowered we are to be at our best more often.

What is Bullying?

Bullying is not just physical or verbal abuse and assault. The definition is far broader and includes more subtle behavior than we may have grown to believe. We are certainly aware of the rest and may have experienced it, but we may have called it something else.

Whether we call it bullying or not, in the end we usually end up feeling outcast, dejected, and maybe defective.

Many cases of bullying may not stem from maladaptive individuals, but rather an adaptive tendency evolved for a long-obsolete environment (Volk, Camilleri, Dane & Marini, 2012).

The best way to understand it is to think of bullying stemming from automatic social tendencies that use social tools such as exclusion to demarcate our inner circles of associates.

There is much to discuss on this topic, but it should suffice to say that good people can and do bully, and since bullying results in exclusion, bullying is an active form of exclusion.

Human Nature or Bad People?

Exclusion stems from the general, fundamental goal of homeostasis – to keep things the same – things such as our trusted inner circle and social survival (which at one time was closely tied to actual survival).

Being excluded can be a very hurtful and psychologically damaging process because it thwarts our own goal for the safety of social inclusion.

Exclusion is brought about through a variety of tactics and strategies. The more active forms of exclusion, or bullying, may stem the biological goals of power and dominance that may be stronger in those individuals.

Human beings are also creative, and can use that in achieving exclusion goals – including power and dominance.

It is important for leaders to understand bullying usually stems from human nature, not bad people. The environment we foster can serve to keep that nature in check or allow excluding behavior to come out and thrive.

We are far more influenced by the environment than most of us can imagine.

Leaders Need to Understand

Due to defects in the conventional views of bullying and also flaws in human nature we all suffer from (including leaders), we may not only fail to recognize cases or do something about them, but we might also contribute to an environment where bullying flourishes.

How this might happen may be revealed in understanding some common flaws in our social nature. Probably the most common reason why bullying can be so widespread is because those who can do something about it (like us leaders) don’t believe it is happening in the first place.

Leaders should understand the typical flaws in human perception that contribute to the tendency to dismiss claims of bullying, and then make changes to minimize the impact of such flaws.

We have many such flaws we get for free by being human, but I’ll only share a few that fall into two categories: attribution and bias.

Blaming Others

Attribution is the process of drawing conclusions about causal origins and evaluations. This is where we suffer from considerable defect. We are driven to answer who is the problem (causation) and what kind of people are involved (evaluation).

Related:  Leadership at the Top

Overall, we tend to attribute cause of negative outcomes to the involved individual and attribute to the individual’s environment or coworkers for positive outcomes.

This may be for instance why we dismissed the complaint one person on a team has about their bullying manager, and ended up believing something is wrong with the plaintiff. We enter the “cried wolf syndrome”. It is certainly easier to blame the plaintiff.

Another tendency that biases us and contributes to our disbelief is called the just-world hypothesis, which is that people deserve what they get. This makes it easier to believe the manager who might blame the plaintiff for being sub par.

It is easy to make the connection that the plaintiff deserved their unfair treatment because they are sub par.

The implicit personality theory phenomenon may connect this bias along with our attribution tendency to conclude the problem is with the plaintiff not the manager. We tend to believe good people cannot bully because we believe bullying involves personality traits good people cannot have.

This stems from the tendency to witness a couple of personality traits and then assume a whole suite of personality traits.  Thus, we believe that a couple of good personality traits we witness in the accused prohibit “incompatible” negative traits, such as bullying.

What Can Leaders Do About It?

We can do a lot more than we think – and it may be much simpler and easier than we thought.

Overall we should ensure our leadership style and skills are in order, which of course is a continual process.  Having a leadership style that is transparent, fair and empowering is a great start.

Here are some specific tips:

  • Subscribe to the unconventional view – the problem is human nature, not bad people.
  • Call it exclusion, and not bullying (exclusion is the more objective term).
  • Have a fair and well-defined win-win process for handling exclusion complaints
  • Focus on fostering inclusion generally and specifically between parties.

Being Transparent

With all the negative focus on bullying, it may be hard to deal with it objectively. It might help to remember that good people bully and that you may be able to resolve many cases without punitive action. Being transparent is critical to resolving such cases.

Calling it exclusion and not bullying not only covers more than just obvious bullying but it might also make it easier for people to report. Educating the team about such tendencies and also group behavior helps team members be more aware of their own behavior and can help position flaws in human nature as the problem, not individuals.

This may also help who would otherwise be victims feel empowered to resolve incidents on their own – perhaps as easily as offering feedback to the perpetrator.

Level the Field

I would recommend having a policy where all complaints follow a formalized process. Make it a violation of policy for complaints to be dismissed without going through the process.

The process should involve an investigation stage, a resolution stage, and a follow-up stage where you or someone appropriately trained act as a moderator and facilitator.

It is critical to maintain the power differential between the moderator and disaccorded parties. It is also important to level the field for the parties even if one reports to another.

Finally, foster inclusion on the team through education, regular team meetings, and periodic team building.

Fostering inclusion on the team also generally contributes to the follow-up stage. You might also, if possible, assign a task where the disaccorded parties work together on the task with specific instruction for instance to learn from each other and get to know each other’s skill set.

We do have the equipment to override our basic tendencies – and the first step is to educate ourselves about them. Next is to let that education shape our paradigms appropriately. As leaders, this should be a mandatory endeavor.

Have You Ever Experienced Bullying?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.

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