In nature there’s no blemish but the mind.
None can be called deformed but the unkind.
Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
I saw two random, Samaritan-like acts of goodwill over the festive season.
The first was a young guy in Shoreditch stopping to ask a blind man, who had frozen to the spot in the midst of a tide of people rushing towards him, if he was okay and needed any help. He did, and the young guy lead him across the street to an easy, less populated stretch of pavement.
The second was a young woman, stopping to ask an elderly man, laden with shopping bags, if he need any help carrying them to the train at London Bridge. He did, and she cheerfully grabbed two armfuls of carrier bags and helped him to the train.
Both were fleeting, fast, responsive acts of kindness. Both required our ‘Samaritans’ to look around to see the world in front of them (rather than a small screen in their palms). And both were anonymous, silent acts of kindness (these weren’t grand gestures, displayed for the public at large – and I’m doubtful my good-hearted fellow citizens then went on to tweet about how kind and noble they were that day).
I wonder if they’re always like that, my good-hearted fellow citizens. Do they do this kind of thing every day, or was it specifically the season of goodwill that induced their civic vigilance? Perhaps this is just the kind of thing people do when they’re not enslaved to a smart phone screen 24/7 (both seemed to be devoid of the demonic, and near universal, device-dependency clutch – rare beings indeed).
I’d like to think it wasn’t just the dictates of the season that prompted my protagonists into positive action. When you think about it, it’s potentially a rather sad indictment that we need to have a ‘season of goodwill’ at all – that we need to be reminded to play nice. Then again, at least we do (and we clearly do need reminding); looking back at 2015, there wasn’t that much evidence of much goodwill about.
From Twitter tackling trolls to the ‘Tatler Tory’ tragedy to reports of alarming rises in incidents of workplace bullying, 2015 wasn’t the year of playing nicely. We had gothic tales of hidden tears in the cubicles of Amazon; dystopian death threats (and threats of rape) made to those who believe women should be treated equally to men; and, of course, the medieval horrors of those who affiliate themselves to Daesh. All various gradients on the same scale – one of hate and anger.
In the workplace, often that hate and anger isn’t even directed in the right place. Many workplace bullies lash out at those alongside them or below them on the organogram because they can’t display it to those above them (who are often creating the conditions for their hatred and anger to breed in the first place).
That’s not to excuse these people – but it goes someway to help explain them. It’s the same in the playground – most often those who make others’ lives miserable at school do so because their own lives at home are less than ideal.
Most bullies are, misguidedly, looking for either power or attention (ideally both) as a result of their actions. For some, getting attention, for good or ill, is reason enough (as long as they’re getting it). Some are just outright nasty people. They enjoy seeing others squirm, or deflate, or bend to their will. Some might be programmed that way – others might think it’s how you need to be to get ahead.
The situational, ’reactive’ bully can be tackled. This is usually just a very unhappy person at work. Usually they need help – with workload, with people, with handling their anger. They need to feel listened to, and, most importantly, need to hear how they make other people feel too. Greater self-awareness is often the key.
The ‘pseudo’ bully, sometimes, can actually be an easier nut to crack (if you’ll forgive the expression). This often plays out with new joiners who are trying to be kick-ass and dynamic and establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Tell them you don’t have to play it that way here and you can often see a physical sense of relief, as if, just by saying that, you’re enabling them to take off the heavy armour they’ve placed on themselves. The shoulders drop, the body relaxes – and, hopefully, the mind opens too.
Of course, this can only happen if they don’t have to play things that way in your culture. It’s no good telling them to lighten up only to chastise them for not getting results three months later because no one pays any attention to what they say. If that’s the case, however, you’ve got a bigger problem on your hands than any one individual.
Then we have the real bullies. Far harder to tackle. The scariest ones for me are those where their actions seem completely subconscious. It’s one thing, by no means forgivable but perhaps more understandable, to be a conscious bully who is mean to people because it gets results. It’s another to be foul to all around you because of some deeper baggage, probably created way before even starting work, that you don’t even realise drives your actions.
And what’s an employer to do with this strain? Well, firstly, don’t promote them (ideally, don’t employ them – but we all make mistakes and few recruitment processes are designed to really weed out the inner demon/s).
If you claim your culture is one about getting results in the right way, not just getting results at any cost, no matter how effective your bully might be, they need to see it’s their actions to others that hold them back.
Make it clear to others you are open to listening to them – constantly justifying someone’s bad behaviour shuts down the dialogue, leaving others to suffer in silence.
This can be especially true of business leaders who may not be on the receiving end of a bullying culture that makes everyone below them scared of their own shadows – sometimes they can be in blissful oblivion of what’s really going on (how many times did we hear that in 2015, Amazon, VW etc.?)
Which kind of brings me full circle to my noble citizens at the start of this post. Whether it’s tackling bad behaviour or creating a culture of trans-seasonal goodwill in the workplace, those that really lead others, those that we really want to follow, look up, look around and notice what’s going on. They also reach out to those who need help.
It always seems one should link such an argument back to the commercials – and, indeed, there’s good reason to. Workplace bullying and poor people management costs – time, money and productivity. It also costs you your reputation. No matter how successful you might be, I’ve noticed that organisations with a reputation for being a bit of a shark tank don’t necessarily struggle to recruit – they just recruit more sharks (those that feel they’ve got what it takes to handle such a culture). That can sustain you in the short term, it can sustain you when things are going well, but the minute you’re not riding so high and those sharks smell blood, well, it’s rarely pretty.
At a conference I attended last year, one of the speakers mentioned a very successful CEO they knew. One of the things this CEO always wanted to know from their staff was “What’s the gossip, what are people talking about, complaining about. Who are they complaining about?”
Interesting when so many CEO’s just want to know the figures. But that’s the point. This CEO had made the connection that so many seem to struggle with: the thing about money is you can never take people out of the equation.
Businesses that run on goodwill – to each other, to their customers – are the businesses that cut it. Everyone else always gets found out in the end.