Engaging in Bullying Behavior and Being a Bully are Different Things

Many of you who have read my blogs over the years know that I often refer to, learn from, or are inspired by my kids. Today’s post is no different but in this case, it is written with one of them.

I was trying to wrap my arm around bullying, micro aggressions and other inappropriate behavior at work but my  thoughts stalled out. Later, I enlisted my son, Andrew, to help.

Right out of the chute, Andrew suggested that childhood behaviors, when left unchecked, become troublesome adult behaviors. But more importantly, he suggested that responding to the behavior itself is probably not going to do much good in the long run – you have to look at what is causing the behavior.

I was fascinated by his insight and so I asked him to explain. He agreed but said it’s important to understand a basic fact first; he offered:

Engaging in bullying behavior and being a bully are different things.

You must understand what causes bullying behavior before you can respond to it and certainly before you write the kid off or label him/her as a bully.

I appreciated this distinction as I often see adults being labeled (both good and bad) and subsequently, that label affecting our own behavior towards them.

Andrew went on to tell me what he believes causes bullying behavior.

  • The kid’s parents or peers aren’t giving them enough attention, good or bad.
    Andrew believes kids feel forgotten or left out and he thinks they act out simply to be seen and to prove to themselves that their presence matters.

    There is quite a lot written about this, and it’s more complicated than “he’s not getting attention” or “she just wants attention.”  Psychologists believe that the lack of attention, good or bad, leads a child to think that no one understands them, no one cares about them, or no one is invested in them. These feelings motivate them to act out, not necessarily in defiance but instead, just to validate that they exist.

  • The kid is acting out specifically to reciprocate an emotion or a punishment. 
    Andrew offered that some kids seem to WANT to hurt their parents or others in authority. Either they are angry because they’ve been punished, or resentful of what they consider an unreasonable boundary, they assert themselves by hurting others. This, in Andrew’s opinion, is a form of passive aggressiveness that, unfortunately, hurts unintended victims.
  • The kid thinks bullying behavior is expected.
    Andrew offered this interesting perspective by sharing an example of a popular kid or the best athlete on a team. He said that sometimes, he wonders if societal or community “pressure” or “competition” influences the child to behave in a bullying way. He sees the child antagonizing, offending or bullying others not necessarily for his/her own enjoyment and rather, for that of the community’s pleasure or entertainment.
  • The kid is mean or something is wrong with him/her emotionally or physically.
    Andrew suggested this was rare. He has seen so many kids who exhibit bullying behavior be perfectly kind and courteous to others on numerous occasions. He says this is proof there is nothing wrong with them. He offered a specific example…himself. He doesn’t believe he’s a bad kid, but admitted he has engaged in bullying for one of the other three reasons he offered above.

I found my son’s insights aligned with what I see in the workplace. Adults, whether it be at work or at play, will often engage in hateful, condescending or otherwise disrespectful behavior; this is bullying! Why do they engage in this way? Here are my thoughts on the matter.

  • Their leader and their colleagues are not giving them enough recognition, whether it’s positive, negative or maintenance (every day interaction recognizing the individual is physically present with you).
    We are all so unique and, likewise, we are all ignited in different ways. I am positive I have misbehaved just to test on whether or not someone was paying attention… I was noticed, I did matter! I see quite a few adults acting out in the same manner.
  • They are pissed.
    They’re either pissed at their boss and want to hurt or sabotage another colleague so they’re not the only one feeling like crap, or they are going to act out against the boss’s perceived pet or favorite employee.
  • They are playing a role.
    The employees who bully others may be getting their cues from the boss, or from a client or from the work culture in general. For instance, in a male dominated field, it is typical for a new male employee to patronize or demean a female simply because he believes the work culture expects it. Or a sales associate, taking cues from a client while at a conference, teases or pokes fun at someone who works for a competitor.
  • They are assholes.
    This, of course, is always a possibility, but the optimist within me says the first three are more likely.
But let’s go back to Andrew’s first point: engaging in bullying behavior and being a bully are different things.

From his perspective most of the kids who engage in bullying behavior are also good kids. Moreover, if they can be retaught or redirected early on, they won’t progress to “being a bully.”

I asked him how adults can reteach or redirect early on. He had a few suggestions:

  • He said often, adults don’t take the time to figure things out, and subsequently react in non helpful ways. As an example, he said if a student is engaging in bullying behavior because she doesn’t feel noticed or she doesn’t feel included, redirecting or talking with this student with empathy or love would probably work. However, he said this rarely occurs! Instead, a teacher or principal would likely isolate the kid. Andrew suggested isolation simply validates those intangible feelings (loneliness or not feeling noticed) with tangible outcomes (being alone).
  • Andrew offered another example in that if a student was engaging in bullying behavior due to his peers’ persuasion or expectation, then the adult should react and/or work with everyone in the group to teach all of them the harmful effects of bullying. Moreover, he offered helping the student build his confidence and learn how to use his popularity for good, not evil, would be a good investment of resources.

Andrew believes the time spent in grade school is formative, and he offered that when bullying behavior is left unchecked or not dealt with in the correct way, the kid begins to think that bullying behavior is normal and before long, the kid who bullies becomes a bully.

So goes bullying behavior in the workplace. Rare is the supervisor who takes the time to analyze the cause of the bullying behavior. Therefore, the supervisor doesn’t invest time in improving the issues that led to the behavior. More often, the supervisor simply reacts to the behavior and expects the employee to conform or improve. Worse, sometimes the supervisor doesn’t react at all, thus validating the behavior. Before long, because bullying behavior was accepted, being a bully becomes part of the employee’s nature.

My son certainly offered quite a bit for me to think about. While I am clearly his biggest fan, I am hopeful you’ll find his insights valuable as well. If not for you as a leader, perhaps for you as a parent or caregiver.