Becoming a better (No Bullies) nation – by Terry Howard

Terry Howard
ADR Advisor Terry Howard

Organizations gripped in COVID-related fear, uncertainty and job insecurity these days are ones that are most vulnerable for empowering bullies who thrive and exploit those realities.

Keep that thought in mind as you read this recent email.
“Terry, those in our office love your articles and want to know if you have written – or could write – something on bullying; not the overt type, but the subtle kind we’re seeing that’s hard to put your finger on. Got anything?”

When I got that email, two things entered my mind. First, given the havoc COVID is wreaking today, why on earth should we worry about bullying of all things?

Second, it sparked still another one of my “Wow, when have I heard that” moments. I seem to have a lot of those lately. That email made me think about Tim Fields who died in England 14 years ago and what he described as the “serial bully.”

Now chances are, you’ve never heard of Tim Fields. I never met him personally although we traded e-mail on the issue of bullying, an issue I’d been writing about and delivering training on at the time. His seminal book, “Bully in Sight,” is the most comprehensive work ever produced on the topic. I bought the book and he sent me an autographed copy prior to his death. I could not put it down.

Unfortunately, Tim had a nervous breakdown as a result of years of being bullied on the job. When he recovered, he launched a campaign to educate on the devastating impact of bullying, including subtle bullying.

In the years that followed Tim’s passing, I kept hearing disturbing evidence that eradicating bullying work was unfinished, especially the subtle forms the emailer above referred to. That’s when an article was sent to me by an anti-bullying expert in New Zealand who had heard about my work.

In the article, “Subtle bullies use manipulation instead of physical threats,” that  appeared in the Denver Business Journal, Ben Leichtling wrote about “low-flying bullies” who fly just below the radar because they’re sneaky, coercive and manipulative. “Because you don’t recognize them as bullies, you don’t rally yourself to resist effectively,” he wrote. “You simply live with your frustration.”

Wow! “Low-flying bullies?”  “Living with your frustration.” The more I deliberated the more I was troubled by those realities, then and now, especially now.

Now to be clear, attacking low-flying bullying is an arduous task since, by definition, much of it operates below the surface, cloaked in subtleties. So it is essential to smoke them out of their hiding places because they damage organizations and harm relationships.
Unlike in past years, today bullies lurk in social media because it provides anonymity. The threat of a tweet is often the bully’s weapon of choice.
So, what can we do?
Well, how do you maintain a weed free lawn? You douse it with weed controls, right? Similarly, you must saturate with extra strength “bullycides” to weed out bullies. Otherwise, like vermin they multiply, suck the life out of productivity and drive targets – and shivering bystanders – underground, or away altogether.

Before going any further, let us be clear: I’m hard-pressed to believe that most folks wake up in the morning wondering who to go out and bully that day. However, whether the behavior is intentional or not, the impact is the same.

Let’s take a look at low-flying bullies, what they look like, where they lurk and at some of their destructive behaviors.

-First, the typical bully is both male and female. He/she is insecure, lacks interpersonal skills, is consumed with jealously and is threatened by those who are popular. No field or profession is immune from bullying. They thrive in customer service, education, medicine, sales, legal, media, sports, manufacturing, non-profits, etc. Organizations tend to turn a blind eye to them if they are key revenue generators.

-Second, bullies are equal opportunity abusers. A person’s age, educational background, gender, race, religion, culture, none of these things matter to them when they feel threatened. They prey on the weak, the vulnerable and avoid those who won’t put up with their abuse.

-Third, bullies are slick, glib and leave little evidence of their pernicious handiwork except psychological injury on their targets. They’ve fine-tuned the art of “kissing up and kicking down,” skillfully staying a step ahead of detection from higher-ups.

Signs of low-flying intentional bully “droppings” include:

• Ignoring the target to make them invisible.
• Expressing negative body language (eye rolling, glaring, space invasion, etc.) to the target.
• Constant nit-picking and blowing trivial issues way out of proportion
• Refusal to acknowledge good work, achievements and value
• Ignoring phone calls, e-mails and taking the target “out of the loop”
• Spreading lies and rumors that undermine the target
• Spewing biting sarcasm or snide, condescending comments
• Unwarranted low rating/negative reviews of a business establishment
• Slamming publications and authors whose views they disagree with.

Truth is that any one of these behaviors, covert or subtle, may be insignificant in and of itself but taken together over time they chip away at the target’s confidence and productivity. They erode business performance and sullies the reputation of leaders who know – or should know – about such destructive behaviors.

Now I could say a lot more about this issue than space permits. But hopefully this piece blows the cover on low-flying bullies and is enough to empower targets and organizations to act.

What else is needed?

Allies, courageous bystanders, astute leaders – all need to pitch in for a war against bullies. When we eradicate discrimination and harassment, including bullying, we become a better nation; one that lives its standards of decency and fair treatment.

– To Tim Fields, bon voyage my comrade, bon voyage!

One thought on “Becoming a better (No Bullies) nation – by Terry Howard”

  1. Thank you for the article. I have witnessed this “low-flying intentional bullying” being played out. Unfortunately, I could not name, at first, what I was witnessing . What it did help me to identify though, was the undesirable character of the person who was perpetrating the bullying.

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