Bullying Is a Confidence Game
Picture a playground. Big kid randomly targets small kid, beating up small kid while taunting mercilessly. Big kid’s friends laugh and walk away. Psychologists opine that big kid is insecure, a coward at heart. Small kid never tells a soul, but eventually recovers from the sticks and stones and names that nearly broke him.
This is the archetypical image we have of bullying. Based on it, I’ve never been bullied. Perhaps you haven’t either.
But in the business world, bullying is far more complex.
In business, bullies are would-be leaders who, rather than use their talent for assessing strengths and weaknesses in the service of their team and their company, instead look to construct an uncontested fiefdom. There can be a very thin line between a bully and a leader.
In my experience, bullies don’t storm the fortress. Instead, we fling the castle gates wide open, inviting bullies to sup with us, perhaps even to sit at the head of the table. They tend to appear full of confidence, selling themselves as some kind of savior, so we let them in.
But it’s just a confidence game. And whether you are a young professional seeking out a mentor, an entrepreneur looking for a co-founder, or mid-level employee in search of a superb senior manager, you are vulnerable to the manipulations of workplace bullies.
Like the Wizard of Oz, a bully reads people for a living. Perhaps we’ve shared our aspirations with the Wizard, as did the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow and Dorothy. Even if we haven’t confided in a bully, they have intuitively, if not explicitly conducted a SWOT analysis. Then, rather than doing what a leader does, which is to build on our strengths and compensate for our weakness for a greater purpose, the bully exploits our weaknesses and uses our strength for their own gain.
Lest you feel discouraged realizing that, in fact, you’ve been bullied at least once in your life, allow me to share a few of the lessons I’ve learned on how to avoid, or if not, extricate yourself from this con game.
Look behind the curtain. Before you bring someone into your inner circle, do your due diligence. “But,” you say, “I have a pretty good instinct.” It’s easy to have a good instinct when you meet someone who seems untrustworthy. These people can’t fleece us because we never let our guard down around them. The palace gates are shut tight.
But when a person tells you everything you want to hear, and you wonder, “Where have you been all my life?” it’s hard to resist. I had a boss like this. I so craved her soothing words of encouragement that I was willing in turn to do her office politics dirty work. She had her sights on the proverbial Wicked Witch of the West, and with my help we took her down. Much later, when I wanted to leave her Land of Oz, she stonewalled my departure and I wondered if perhaps the Witch’s hat had been on the wrong head. My advice: when you think you don’t need to look deeper to know someone’s character (especially when you don’t want to), pull back the curtain and take a good hard look — simply because it’s a best practice.
Observe why you are in the thrall of the Wizard. Listen to what he says or does that has you thirstily drinking from his poisonous well. When I first started my entrepreneurial journey, there was a company I wanted to start, and a couple with whom I wanted to build it. They instinctively (for most bullies, it’s rarely malicious) knew I wanted what they were promising so desperately. I didn’t pull back the curtain: unfortunately there was no Toto to reveal the ugly truth. While the venture has long since failed, I can now clearly see the weaknesses my co-founders played on and where and when they went for the jugular. Knowing where I’m vulnerable is a gift that has protected me from bullies I’ve encountered since, and it has given me a deeper understanding of my strengths. Knowing both your strengths and weaknesses can liberate you from the power of a “Wizard.”
Notice what the Wizard says you can’t do. When I confided in the aforementioned boss that I’d like to graduate to another role outside of her supervision, she, who had once purred, “You can do anything!” instead said, “There is no possible way you can pull this off.” In retrospect, it was pretty safe bet I could have done exactly what she told me I couldn’t do. In many ways, I have. And that’s why she didn’t want me to leave her personal fiefdom.
The tragedy in all of this is that the bullies I’ve encountered could be incredible leaders — they are smart, charismatic, even alluring. When narcissism trumps the collective good, you are dealing with a bully. A bully will always try to pull you down in order to push himself up. If you find yourself with a “friend” — a colleague, a manager, or boss — who consistently tells you “you can’t,” take a closer look at what’s in it for him or her.
None of this means we shouldn’t continue to fling wide our personal palace gates, seeking out the best bosses, business partners, and advisors. A career without trust and without collaborators would be dreary indeed. And yet, the best working relationships are forged over time, with confidence earned in the midst of the mundane.
Remember that the lesson of Oz is to have have faith in yourself. Whatever it is you so dearly want, whether it’s courage, a brain or a heart, or simply to be at home — all the things the alluring Wizard is promising — have been within your power to achieve all along. And while a bully may have almost conned you into believing you couldn’t go home, a leader will never let you forget that you can.