There has been a good amount of recent public debate about bullying in social circles--at work, at school, and elsewhere. Public opinions range from those who callously tell the victims to grow thick skins, to those who respond with furious outrage that our society is very lenient and permissive with the perpetrators getting away with those heinous acts. This is a complex issue.
Several years ago I dreaded going into work for many months. My company went through a reorganization and experienced massive personnel turnover. One of the new team members was a personal friend of a senior level executive. I was assigned to train him on the standard procedures of help desk work. On his second day, the colleague asked me if he could deviate from the firmly-established work schedule in order to attend a food event that was taking place during the day. I politely requested that he adhere to scheduled breaks and lunch time, which was the established protocol. His face immediately turned raging red as he threw a histrionic fit, muttering nonsense about how he “was going to starve to death” that day. He adamantly ignored my logical attempts to offer alternative locations for sourcing food. That incident was just the start.
This bully on the team then decided to pawn off all of his work that he was either incapable of doing or didn’t feel like processing, and expected me to finish his assigned tasks (this was during a period at the workplace when I was expected to train other new teammates and handle administrative chores for the workgroup, in addition to completing my assigned work). Over time, his manipulative tantrums happened with greater frequency and he acted this way to both colleagues and customers. He routinely made derogatory comments about peers in other departments whom he had briefly met moments prior. He insisted on “helping” me with my work, believing that my technical skills were weak and that “I needed mentoring.” He continued his manipulative and abusive behavior in the workplace with impunity, feeling that he had some level of entitlement and protection due to his relationship with a higher-up.
Many people on the team raised concerns about this bully’s behavior with our management, but no action was taken for nine months. We were given hollow excuses such as, “Oh, he just needs more training.” We all suspected that our superiors were afraid to raise the issue of the bully’s behavior to the senior executive, and allowed the bullying behavior and toxic environment to continue, until he finally wore out his welcome.
Did the workplace culture improve after the bully got fired? Hardly. Other people on the team observed that they too can get away with abusive and demeaning behavior toward others. There was another former colleague who, after I asked him in earnest about what I could do to learn a newly-adopted product which he was a subject matter expert on, rudely yelled at me in response and told me to mind my own business. Raising the issue with management only resulted in a pusillanimous advice: “If you have questions about the system, talk to someone else on the project team."
So what can you do when a culture is broken? What do you do when earning a paycheck involves exposing yourself to a workplace where bullying is tolerated? Is it worth the decent pay, although it may seem like more a combat pay? Do you dare greatly and walk out of a well-paying workplace like professional football player Jonathan Martin recently did a month ago?
I admit that I was no angel in terms of exhibiting antisocial behavior. I learned at a young age that some bigger kids will mercilessly pick on smaller peers without giving any thoughts about the consequences of their actions. In junior high, there was a tall, gangly kid who was one year ahead of me. Every time he saw me in the hallway, he would put his fingers next to the outer edges of his eyes, raise them, and make mocking, demeaning “slanty-eyes” faces at me. This went on for an entire school year. One time he pushed me into a row of lockers in the hallway after I had walked away from his slanty-eyes act. This guy was so incessant about mocking my looks that he would take few moments away from his basketball team’s pre-game layup drills to make the face at me when I walked by. I was scared of being mocked and humiliated every time I walked in the hallways between classes: I even took mental notes of what his course schedule was so I could do my best to avoid seeing him in the hallway. I constantly asked my mom what I can do to make my eyelids grow bigger so I wouldn’t get teased. I grew resentful of my parents for moving our family from Japan to a country where mean people would act this way. So I did what most kids did: I picked and bullied smaller and younger classmates. I punched couple of kids in my gym class who were smaller that I was. I threatened kids who were few years younger than I. It was the thing to do back in the day. There were only a dozen incidents like these in my childhood and adolescence, but it felt like a survival tactic. I am not proud of them.
So what can you to put an end to bullying? I don’t have an answer. But I have a notion that negative behaviors are less likely to happen in a culture where trust, encouragement, and support are valued highly.
Elsewhere in my organization, I hear stories of colleagues who genuinely care for one another. They surprise their peers with vases of flowers to commemorate their birthdays, host baby showers for colleagues who are expecting a new family member, offer sympathy bouquets and cards for passing away of their colleagues’ animal companions, and make new teammates feel welcome by taking her or him to lunch. Another department created a culture of supportiveness and fun through making mutual encouragement of all teammates a daily habit, and incorporating occasional fun activities (such as hosting blind tastings for refreshments). At a conference I attended last month, I learned that a colleague at another institution makes it a point to make new team members feel welcomed by treating her or him as the most important person on their first day of work. Another colleague/friend from a different school places emphasis on getting to know teammates on a personal level: he takes them out to lunch, organizes after-work fun gatherings, and pursues other activities to establish trust.
Perhaps I took the encouragement given to me from my former leaders for granted, but they did many things to create positive cultures. A former manager introduced me to The Four Agreements (I strive to be impeccable with my word, not take anything personally, not make assumptions, and always do my best every day) and the ideas behind Nonviolent Communication. Other leaders encouraged to immerse myself in leadership opportunities. Another manager nudged me to expand my leadership boundaries by loaning me Good to Great and Who Moved My Cheese? books. She also threw an impromptu cake party at the office the day after I passed the examination to become a United States citizen--I no longer felt ashamed to be that slanty-eyed seventh grader who was bullied in the hallways. This awesome culture regrettably eroded after the reorganization.
So what can I do to create a culture where bullying and toxic behaviors are less likely to happen? I don’t have a sure answer, but I know what needs to be done to steer the sails towards a general, optimal direction. I want to continue being inspired by examples of positive cultures and interactions that are happening elsewhere. I want to do my work in a way which honors my values and reflects what I believe is possible. I also want to show courage and speak out when I witness or experience toxic behaviors. I want to establish boundaries and let others know what is acceptable and what is not. Sadly I learned that no one else, including management, is going to make these changes: I have to advocate for myself and create sustaining habits through my actions.
You may be a professional football player who is earning a six-figure salary. Or you may be a school kid who is being ostracized and bullied for your looks, physical stature, ethnicity, physical handicap, sexual orientation, or other things that make you stand out. You may be a company person who is being subjected to mental or emotional abuse at the hands of others in your place of work. No one deserves being bullied, and there is no excuse for treating others in a way that sullies and stains a culture of trust which many people have worked hard to create and maintain.