How The Emotional Impact Of Childhood Bullying Can Follow You To Your Work Life

What an entrepreneur learned about empathetic leadership from her experience as a victim of adolescent bullying.

How The Emotional Impact Of Childhood Bullying Can Follow You To Your Work Life
[Photo: Flickr user Damian Gadal]

Sue Ismiel, CEO and founder of Sue Ismiel & Daughters, producers of Nad’s line of hair removal products, clearly recalls the day she first experienced being bullied.


As a 15-year-old new arrival in Australia from Syria, a group of girls taunted her on the school bus over her lack of command of the English language.

“It happened at such a tender age and left such a huge impact on my life,” says Ismiel. Now, as a CEO, she credits her empathetic leadership style that has helped make her company a success, along with the traumatic experience of being bullied in her youth.

Ronald Riggio, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College, says bullying often leaves deep emotional scars that follow us into adulthood, and can affect how we act as leaders and managers.

While some leaders may, like Ismiel, become more effective in their positions, Riggio explains, for others, the experience of bullying can leave a long-lasting negative impression, affecting the individual’s potential to become a good leader.

Targets Of Bullying Can Become More Empathetic Managers

For Ismiel, her experience of being bullied as a teenager caused her to be extra-sensitive to the needs of others as an adult. While she’s come across many other leaders who use the carrot and stick approach to get results, Ismiel says her leadership style is about encouraging people to do their best. This is likely a direct result of the horrible feeling of worthlessness that came from being bullied as a teenager; a feeling she says she doesn’t wish to be passed through those who work for her company.

Targets Of Bullying Can Become Bullies Themselves

It may seem counterintuitive, but Riggio says individuals who were bullied on the schoolyard, or as entry-level employees, often transform into office bullies when they assume leadership roles. “[Former targets of bullying] start to make the association that this is an acceptable way of dealing with other people or that it’s a good way to get what you want,” says Riggio.


The manager who had a Gordon Ramsey-type boss as an entry-level employee may assume their former boss’ behavior is responsible for getting them to where they are now, so this must be an appropriate management style. Or they may treat their new management position as a way to exact revenge; to finally be on the other side of the put downs and taunting. Riggio argues these individuals may not even recognize that they’re behaving in a similar manner to their former bullies, and often need to have a mirror held up to them to show how their behavior is affecting those around them.

Targets Of Bullying Can Lead The Way To Creating A More Positive Company Culture

Ismiel’s experience with bullying helped her to recognize the importance of building a company culture that doesn’t tolerate put downs and mistreatment of others in the workplace. Three years ago, Ismiel hired a highly skilled salesperson to be the company’s global sales director.

“He was highly experienced, he brought amazing skills, but he had a rotten attitude,” says Ismiel. “He undermined the people around him and belittled people.” She quickly recognized the signs of inter-office bullying, and stood up behind her company’s values.

She then made a decision to dismiss anyone who didn’t fit into the company culture she sought to create, no matter how talented they were. “I felt how painful that experience of bullying was so when I know that someone else is being bullied, that’s unacceptable in my business,” she says. Ismiel even implemented anti-harassment and bullying policies in her company to ensure her employees are always being treated with respect.

Targets Of Bullying Can Suffer From Poor Interpersonal Skills That Affect Their Ability To Be Effective Leaders

Bullying can leave deep emotional scars that take years to heal, and sometimes last a lifetime. Riggio says targets of bullying often suffer from low self-esteem, and have difficulty establishing good interpersonal relationships. “They will often enter relationships expecting the other person is going to use their power over them, so they’re always on guard waiting for the hammer to come down,” he says.

This can be extremely problematic in today’s workplace where an effective leader means establishing positive relationships with those on your team to get the most out of them. Riggio always recommends individuals who suffer from low self-esteem as a result of bullying episodes to seek counseling and participate in workshops to learn how to build positive interpersonal skills, allowing them to become more effective as leaders of their organization.


About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction