Change Agent - Issue 41

"Why are we willing to tolerate bullies?"

Know any bullies? I've asked that question a lot lately, and nobody ever says no.

People always have bully stories to tell. Stories about bullies in elementary school. Stories about how recess was the worst period in school — not because classes were so great, but because bullies ran wild on the playground. I've heard stories about high-school bullies and even a story about a college professor who thought that the best way to teach was by browbeating students. And here's a big surprise: Just about everyone knows a bully at work.

There are two things about this fact that really surprise me.

The first is that while just about everyone agrees that bullies are annoying, difficult, counterproductive, and sometimes even dangerous, nobody actually seems to want to do anything about the steady supply of new bullies who seem to emerge on a daily basis.

The second thing that surprises me is that the people I've talked to never admit to being bullies themselves.

All of this has me wondering about the phenomenon of bullies, bosses, and how the rest of us work. Why are we willing to tolerate bullies? That question can leave you scratching your head if you don't try to make sense out of it. So let's start with a definition.

What exactly is a bully? A bully is a person who uses external force to entice others to do things his way, regardless of what a rational person might say is the best course of action.

In elementary school, the external force is almost always physical. As in, "Give me your lunch money, or I'll punch you in the nose." By playing to evolutionary history (historically, physical force from a person or an animal was the most likely way to die), these kids are able to get what they want.

It's quite intoxicating for a 7-year-old child to discover that he can get what he wants just by punching people (or, even better, just by threatening to punch people). The bullies we feared growing up were physical bullies. They used their perceived greater strength (or our perception that they were willing to use it) to get whatever it was that they wanted, regardless of whether or not that was a good thing to do.

Of course, adolescent bullying isn't always about punching people. I recently watched two 14-year-old girls bully their way through a camping trip, not only causing their six peers to cower in their path, but also successfully intimidating the adult chaperones.

Exactly how were they able to pull this off? How did two 80-pound girls manage to wreck a week in the woods for this group? They did it with the force of their personalities. With vague threats that they would withhold their charisma from peers who needed it. With brilliant, Henry Kissinger-esque diplomacy, skillfully playing one group off of another. At every step along the way, these selfish bullies did whatever they wanted, forcing the group to focus on what the girls needed, as opposed to what was right for the group.

Unfortunately, bullies don't stop bullying when they grow up — they just learn to hide it better. A kid who learns to get his way by bullying isn't going to abandon this winning strategy just because he has a job. Since he's always gotten what he wanted that way, why would he stop now?

But bullying is dangerous. At its core is the fact that a bully gets what she wants at the expense of the group's well-being.

And because business is about groups and about interactions, bullies can dramatically harm almost any organization. You know who they are. You have them in your company, and you've seen what they can do. Bullies can keep your company from investing in a profitable new area because they're insecure — and unsure how it will affect their career. They can ruin the career of a promising new upstart because they view that person as a threat. Bullies can make it hard for other companies to do business with you.

Think for a second about the day that CEO, chairman, and president of Nike, Phil Knight, bullied Sears. It seems that Sears mistakenly ran a Nike-sneakers ad on a cereal box, violating an agreement that Sears had with Nike. Phil's response: pull all Nike shoes from every Sears store instantly. Yes, Phil was defending the brand. Yes, it was a critical moment that established Nike as a high-end purveyor of athletic dreams.

But then some Sears executives flew out to Oregon to meet with Knight. They were ready to acknowledge their company's mistake, and to figure out how to preserve Sears's valuable relationship with the sneaker manufacturer. Knight sent the executives home without even meeting with them.

Nike is actually proud of this story; it's a totem of how the company cares for its brand and how it is willing to defend its specialness. I see it differently. I think that Phil Knight had a chance to cut a great new deal with Sears that would lead to increased mind share and profits, and that would satisfy many of the goals of Nike shareholders. But instead, Knight seized the opportunity as a way to bully a formerly valuable partner.

A few years ago, I flew from New York to San Francisco to meet with FCB, the ad agency of record for Levi's. When I arrived, I struck up a conversation with a fellow Internet entrepreneur who was sitting in the lobby. He had flown in from Seattle for a meeting. It quickly became clear that the media buyer had scheduled a meeting with both of us at the same time.

The media buyer sent out his secretary (secretaries are always the silent victims of bullying bosses). She told the other guy, "You don't have an appointment. We're not going to see you. We don't know why you came. Please leave." And sent him home. Just like that.

Needless to say, I went into my meeting more than a little nervous. In the middle of my demo (during which the media buyer took three phone calls and kept telling me, "Yeah, yeah, okay, move on"), my laptop burst into flames. Literally. Smoke started pouring out of the battery pack.

Obviously, there's not much you can do to prepare for this kind of unforeseen development, but I did what I could. I ripped out the battery, watched the wisps of smoke dissipate, and, without missing a beat, continued with my pitch. At the end of our meeting (which, as I recall, spanned a grand total of something like 10 minutes), the media buyer said, "Well, I have to go. Bye." And then he turned back to his desk.

Now, I would have liked to have made a sale, of course. But I've been turned down before, and I can live with it. However, there's no way that the people at Levi's — who are great — would have sat idly by if they'd been there to see this performance. They know that it's a bad idea to bully a possible supplier. After I left the meeting, my company instituted a policy: Never call on FCB again. How does that help their client?

Please note: Just because someone is gruff doesn't necessarily mean that he is a bully. Nor is someone a bully just because he doesn't like every one of your ideas. That said, it's pretty clear that bullying is a problem. Given how horrible bullying can be — both to internal and to external relationships — why do companies put up with it?

I chalk it up to fear and ignorance: fear that if you stand up to a bully, you'll somehow hurt yourself and the organization, and ignorance about the best way to deal with the bully.

A few years ago, Joanne Kates, who is one of the smartest and most successful camp directors that I know, decided to tackle this issue head-on. She decided to focus all of her energy on making her summer camp bully free. If you have any memories of summer camp, it's unlikely that they're bully-free memories! (And if you never went to summer camp, just summon up your memories of those classic Charles Atlas ads, the ones that feature the big-pecced bully kicking sand in the face of the scrawny kid — who represents you, of course). The challenge that Kates undertook was a unique one, and I'm pleased to report that her camp is very successful. And you can make her idea work for your company as well.

At Camp Arowhon, they've discovered some remarkably simple (but hard!) ways to come to grips with bullying. Now, I'm the first to admit that summer camp isn't anything like the world of business. For one thing, business is a lot simpler than camp. For another, people at work are a lot easier to talk with, work with, and, ultimately, change than kids are at just about any camp. So I can fearlessly recommend these camp-tested techniques, proven to rid your workplace of bullies.

First, get over the fear. A bully-free company is faster, smarter, more profitable, and more fun. If the bullies quit, fine. You'll survive. And if you replace them with nonbullies, the company will thrive. The benefits of fixing the bully problem so completely outweigh the costs of ignoring it that all you have to do is weigh the two scenarios, and you'll be sold. Compared to failing slowly at an unhappy company, the fear is worth getting over.

Second, develop a bully-ridding tactic. It should be pretty simple, but you have to start from the top. Here are six steps toward a bully-free company:

  1. Make it clear to everyone how painful and expensive bullying is, and announce that you'll go to whatever lengths necessary to stamp it out.
  2. Keep your promise by backstopping anyone who stands up to bullying. When you see someone taking a stand, comment on it — out loud — in front of others who are being bullied. And be sure to use the word bully.
  3. Identify bullying behavior that you aren't going to tolerate, and spell the rules out carefully to all of the members of your organization. (Sexual harassment, one of the most common forms of bullying, is already on the decline at many companies precisely because of this step.)
  4. Clip out this article and send it to anyone who's a bully. And if you still haven't gotten over that fear thing, it's okay to send it anonymously. If a thoughtful, motivated person gets feedback like this from a few of her colleagues, it can make a huge difference in her behavior.
  5. If a bully won't stop, fire him. It's sort of ironic that you have to bully a bully in order to get him to stop bullying, but it works.
  6. The sixth step is the hardest one of all for some people: You've got to stop being a bully yourself.

Seth Godin (sgodin@fastcompany.com) is not a bully. He is, however, the author of Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends Into Customers (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Unleashing the Ideavirus (Do You Zoom Inc., 2000). Get his latest book for free on the Web (www.ideavirus.com).

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