The complexities of bullying behaviour.
My most recent piece in The Big Smoke discussed the prevalence of psychopathic behaviour within corporate leaders. I pondered the need for change, but also what kind of person has the fight to survive outside the status quo while still retaining enough power to enact that change. Another discussion was then provoked. Is bullying at school connected with success at work, or is that the time when the victims are able to rise from the ashes of their shattered self-esteem? The first stop on this journey is to state that there will always be anecdotes of the Bill Gates of this world. Physically underwhelming, bullied children who go on to do great things. While these stories inspire, they hardly prepare us for the realities of what we might face. So I thought I would scout around for some further insight into how bullying might infect all of our working lives. As you can imagine, the answer is nuanced.
The question began as an investigation between the successes of victims versus those who are perceived as bullies. It became quickly clear that while victims can succeed in life, that a socially competent bully is probably going to beat you up for some of that success when you both meet at the water cooler. The Journal of Managerial Psychology suggests that bullying traits strongly correlate with business success [http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/02683941311321169]. It described bullies as those that are able to manipulate resources from those below them in the hierarchy while still able to present as high performing to those above them. As you would imagine victims are often perceived as less socially competent, the most vulnerable to this behaviour. As I was reading this research I start noticing a pattern, that this style of bully is able to manipulate those around them according to their value. This hardly fits in with the stereotype of the block-headed bully smoking in the toilets at school. Here we have a depiction of two types of bullies, those with a ham-fisted pursuit of power and those that are more cunning in regard to social cues.
This dichotomy between bullies is further clarified by research into men who have higher levels of testosterone. It has been found that they exhibit a greater need for dominance which predicts a lack of success in relationships at work and at home [https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/200905/the-testosterone-curse-part-2]. So the picture of the disadvantaged bully might be struggling with more than just an inter-generational narrative of success by brute force but also have a stronger innate desire for it. However, to achieve in a complexly social world, more nuanced political manipulation is necessary.
Learning political manipulation in school can be a precarious social career trajectory. I moved onto another study which showed that those perceived as the cool kids at school are more likely to be less competent in relationships and more likely to have drug problems and commit crime [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2656133/Revenge-geeks-Cool-kids-school-popular-competent-successful-adults-peers.html]. This may very well be related to the research that those who are in the top five percent of perceived popularity are virtually immune from bullying whereas if you are climbing the social ladder you are actually more vulnerable to bullying and your fights are far less visible as you try to maintain the facade of coolness. It seems then that being comfortable with and remaining in your place in the social hierarchy is the safest place to be. I suppose that’s loser talk.
There is a complexity of interaction between all of these studies that obviously requires further empirical investigation. What I am reading however is that the bullies that are most visible are the ones that probably deserve our sympathy. There is even evidence to suggest that when a study is controlled for socio-economic disadvantage that the poor social and health outcomes that bullies suffer is negligible [https://www.quora.com/Do-bullied-kids-usually-become-successful-and-well-adjusted-later-in-life]. Considering these investigations it is the manipulative bullies that are the least visible that should be drawing our attention. When I speak to clients it seems the most successful bullies reported on are the ones that flex their political muscle in a way so underhanded that there is no actual evidence to prove the tone of voice, the use of closed room discussions, the presentation of arbitrary requirements that are incrementally more unreasonable, and the unfair height of value placed upon them by their supervisors.
This leaves us with the question of how we can teach our young people the healthiest pursuit of social success. This unfortunately requires a clear definition of what social success incorporates. I don’t know if you remember school the way I do, but to me it seemed like a thinly veiled Lord of the Flies scenario. Children are left to their own devices to pursue advantage from a place of low insight all the while navigating far more convincing instinctual and socially ingrained influences than the lessons desperately articulated by parents. There was even a call in one article I read to incorporate games that let children play out these ingrained social struggles in a more visible context. I would have to agree, as experiential learning can be far more impactful. Can you remember a moment that illuminated your capacity for manipulation and cruelty? A moment that scared you off from that type of behaviour?
I don’t really recommend we turn playgrounds to mud and start handing out spears and headdresses. However, there is a wonderful Radiolab podcast [radiolab.org] that describes an interesting option. The narrator describes a primary school experience where she became the leader in a false economy set up by her teacher. Slowly stepping outside the rules she begun introducing her own counterfeit money and manipulated people around her in a way that disadvantaged everyone in order to “win”. She became startlingly aware of her capacity for manipulation when she found herself lying to the teacher she had admired. It became a defining moment for her now strong sense of social responsibility. Meanwhile, on calling class mates more than twenty years later she was the only one that remembered the game quite so vividly.