Rethinking the Bully Brand

No worker deserves to be labeled, shunned, and excluded — not even "bullies".

Posted May 02, 2013

Whenever I hear the word "bully," I run for cover. I don't know what scares me more—the memories of venomous torment I’ve personally endured in school and in the workplace, or the troubling tide of anti-bullying rhetoric that I fear will do far more to embolden than control those mean-spirited people who consider their behavior acceptable as long as they convince themselves that it’s “deserved.” But I have discovered that to even discuss these concerns often leads to accusations, hostility and silencing responses nearly as aggressive as bullying itself.

It was at a workshop on bullying that I attended last year that I found just how aggressive the response can be when I asked the speaker if the term “bully” was itself a form of dehumanizing name-calling. His response was to scream at me and accuse me of being an apologist for bullies. His aggression did not stop there; moments later when I had not said a word, he stopped in mid-talk, turned toward me, his face deep red, and began screaming at me some more. Keeping my voice calm, I did exactly what he had just suggested people do when they feel they are being bullied: I told him I did not appreciate the way he was speaking to me, and that I found it disrespectful. Rather than lower his voice, he continued to berate and insult me, then turned around, leaned over, and lifted his suit coat in a symbolic gesture suggesting that I could kiss his rear for having the temerity to have a different view.

At that point, I left the workshop, having no desire to continue to be publicly disrespected and yelled at. Because the speaker had similarly attacked me in his blog, dismissing my expertise, calling me names, and encouraging readers to dismiss me, and because several other professionals had expressed to me similar experiences with the speaker, I knew there was no point in expecting a more respectful response from him, regardless of my actions. Moreover, one of the distinguishing features of bullying and mobbing is the belief that the target deserves the treatment. Once an aggressor has reached the conclusion that the target deserves abuse, there is no telling them that their behavior is abusive and unwanted. They regard their behavior as justified, regardless of how aggressive or unwanted it becomes.

Afterwards, I was contacted by people in attendance who indicated they were shocked by the speaker’s behavior. After all, he was a nationally recognized authority on the topic of bullying, yet he had engaged in the very behaviors he has been so outspoken against: publicly disrespecting someone, yelling at them, and putting them down for simply having a different perspective. But would I call him a “bully?”

At one time, yes, I would have. I certainly felt bullied and it was the only time I have ever attended a public event and been screamed at. But the label has come to be so altered in recent years, in large part due to this speaker’s own efforts to raise awareness about the seriousness of workplace abuse, that to use the label is now far more stigmatizing and polarizing than descriptive. Moreover, as bullying as I and others have found his actions, there is more to the man than his aggression. To label anyone “a bully” is to disregard their value. The question thus emerges, if the label of “bully” is problematic, does that mean that bullying is acceptable behavior?

No, it does not. Bullying is indeed a problem; it is a form of human behavior that is innate to our (and others’) species, and for that reason, it cannot be eradicated. But that is why we have culture: to establish rules for regulating innate but destructive behaviors we would otherwise engage in.

The trend in anti-bullying rhetoric, policies and laws is just such an effort at establishing rules to prevent people from engaging in bullying behaviors. Anti-bullying policies are intended to bring an end to the interpersonal aggression that dehumanizes, humiliates and seriously wounds children and adults in organizational settings such as schools, workplaces, and communities. In that regard, I applaud the objective. But in recent years the strategy that has been adopted toward this end has been flawed in many respects. First among these flaws has been the manner in which people are treated as things rather than as people with the use of the term "bully."

Calling a person a "bully" may be effective in bringing an aggressive individual down to size, but that very quality is what makes the label so problematic. The use of any derogatory label to describe a person is dehumanizing and promotes stereotypes. When we dehumanize a person with a label, we make it easier to attack them. In warfare, soldiers learn to kill other people by referring to them with terms associated with animals, monsters, evil, or any of a number of names which make it easier to see them as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity and hence, a threat to group survival.

In organizational settings, the increasing use of the bully label is similarly used to defend eliminating someone for the good of the group. If the policy is “no bullies allowed,” the best way to reach consensus that someone be excluded from the group is to brand them as a bully. The label is not likely to stick to anyone in a position of organizational power; it will stick to the person that those in organizational power want to eliminate—such as the whistleblower who is "too negative," the high performer who is "too demanding," or the target of discrimination who is "always complaining." All that is needed to achieve that end is to begin the branding, and group consensus will follow provided organizational leadership wants that person gone.

Autocratic world leaders have a keen understanding of how this process operates. Certain people can be eliminated—by their own citizen counterparts—merely by creating classes of people who are considered different from the rest of the group. Once defined as “different,” that difference is then given value—those who are different are thus viewed as inferior. Once viewed as inferior, the “different” group is cast as a threat to others. By creating a class of people who are considered to have less value than others, and not being worthy of the same rights as others, it is not necessary to establish that a person's behavior or thinking is a problem; all that is necessary to eradicate them is to persuade others that the person belongs to the disfavored class. That is done most effectively by simply stating, and repeating, the disfavored label upon them, until others adopt it as well. That is how racial, ethnic and political hatred is fostered by an autocratic leadership and reproduced by a population; it is a pattern that is replicated across time and space because it works—the populace will predictably respond with fear and rage against those who leadership disfavors with this tactic.

This same process operates in organizational settings by creating an ambiguous class of people who will not be tolerated among the group. By an ambiguous class, I mean that the characterizations that apply to the group are seemingly clear yet sufficiently fuzzy that almost anyone can at one time or another be characterized as belonging to the group. Whose behavior becomes characterized as offensive, unacceptable, verbally abusive, arbitrary and demanding—behaviors grouped under the label of "bully”—is more likely to reflect relationships of power than individual character. For example, the worker who has filed a grievance only to become the target of unrelenting retaliation is likely to become defensive, unhappy, angry and to file grievances—the very acts which can quickly be labeled by management as offensive, abusive, unacceptable, demanding and arbitrary—hence, the acts of a "bully." The next step for management is to promote consensus.

The most effective way to strip anyone of value and deprive them of fundamental rights—whether human rights, civil rights, or even basic de-facto rights to fair play, safety and dignity at school or in the workplace—is to achieve a consensus that they belong in the less valued class. That consensus is readily achieved in organizational settings because those in positions of power influence collective perceptions and self interest—and humans will almost always align their perceptions with their self interest, regardless of the facts.

Anti-bullying policies are particularly effective weapons for autocratic organizations because they appeal to our social vulnerability, fears and self interest. By promoting policies that suggest bullies will not be tolerated, the group is appeased; after all, who wants to be bullied? However, once such policies are in place, shunning, name calling, gossip and elimination will follow anyone who is branded a bully. Ironically, these very behaviors would otherwise be considered bullying themselves were they not sanctioned by those in positions of leadership.

These concerns are not to suggest that aggression in organizations should be tolerated. My concern is that the current anti-bullying rhetoric promotes a stereotype of "bullies" and "bullying" that is ripe for abuse and escalating aggression. It is far more useful, in my view, to discuss group psychology and aggression rather than "bullying," and to talk about aggressive behaviors, rather than "bullies."

By shifting the discussion to the behavior itself, and by talking about people rather than things (and "bullies" are indeed treated as things in this rhetoric), the wide range of aggressive behaviors that are exhibited in organizational settings is more visible, and the range of solutions more open to discussion. Moreover, by focusing on the behavior, rather than the “bully,” the person who engages in abusive behavior is not reduced to a single dimension of their behavior—they are more likely to change their behavior if they are not forced to defend against being branded inherently bad and being reduced to a generic “bully.”

Bullying has in recent years become an industry in itself, launching careers and businesses in consulting, coaching, testing, and training. It is indeed a brand, whether through the emotional responses the term is intended to elicit, or through the lasting scars on anyone who, for whatever reason, gets branded as a bully. Some people are indeed aggressive and abusive and their behavior merits intervention. But to more objectively determine who these people are, it's high time we step off the bully pulpit, and look to the many forms of organizational aggression that are manifest in schools, workplaces and communities. Only by thinking outside the bully box will we begin to behave more compassionately toward those with whom we work and live, and less like "bullies" ourselves.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Huffington Post as “The Bully Label Has to Go.”