Dealing with Organizational Bullies: Positive Culture and the Evaporation of Dragons

In classrooms with executives and with students, I seek to create a place of safety that allows people to express their vulnerabilities. When they do, patterns of reality that they can’t normally discuss enter the conversation. We see not only the conventional reality from the middle of the normal curve, but we also see the negative reality from the left of the normal curve.

Exposing our vulnerabilities is a demonstration of courage. Showing courage is a virtuous act that moves a conversation to the right side of the normal curve. It creates trust and puts us into a positive reality where mutual learning can accelerate. In such relationships we can more readily embrace possibility and find the power to transform oppressive negatives.

When truth becomes discussible, one of the most common themes is abuse. It occurs everywhere including the top of the hierarchy. I think of a vice president in a global company who shared the following story with extraordinary pain.

A senior vice president, a technically capable woman with low emotional intelligence, was becoming a bigger and bigger problem. The solution was to select some of the best people in the company, including the vice president, and place them under her. The theory was that they could buffer her negative influence on the many people involved.

The vice president saw this as a worthy challenge and committed. What he did not anticipate was the amount of toxicity he would endure. His boss was more insecure than ever and, for him, she was becoming insufferable. The negative dynamics were destructive to all.

As this highly accomplished and normally powerful man shared his pain, he spoke from the victim mentality. He saw no alternatives. He felt powerless. I asked him value clarifying questions. By the end of our conversation he saw many possible alternatives and he became optimistic. What happened?

A metaphor might be helpful. I have been reading a book called Small Arcs of Larger Circles by Nora Bateson. At one point she writes of her son.

I am reminded of a time when my son was bullied by a boy in the 5th grade who wiped dog-poop on him every day at school. It took him weeks to tell anyone because he was so ashamed. That afternoon in the living room we practiced saying the words “back off” in a voice that came from my son’s “I-mean-it” place. It took a while, but finally after an hour or so he found what we called his “thunderous roar.” The next day at school he was ready to use that voice. The boy with the dog poop on a stick approached him to smear him with humiliation, and my son took a breath and was about to say his “back off,” when the boy changed his mind. Somehow he knew the relationship has shifted (Bateson, 2016:114).

This important story illustrates many principles. First the mother does not react to this emotional challenge in a conventional way. With a great sense of injustice and anger she could have gone to the school and condemned the teacher or the principal for allowing bad things to happen in the world. She could have gone to the parents of the bully or the bully himself. She engaged none of these conventional, context altering strategies.

Instead she becomes proactive and transformational. She sets out to empower her son. She first gives him a purpose. It is vision of an alternative and more desirable reality. No more dog poop. Through the creation of this attractive future, she opened the door to hope.

She could then have done another conventional thing. After telling him to stand up for himself she could have said “go do it.” She did not. She instead invested an hour in patient role playing. She nurtured faith in his own ability and she built his courage.

Then she did something crucial. She honored his agency by letting him face his own dragon. When the boy faced the dragon, the dragon evaporated. This is the principle least accessible to the fearful, conventional mind. The conventional mind always declares, “Yes, but you have never seen my dragon.”

My response is that I have been told this story in a hundred forms. When the best self emerges, when we find our voice, when we are ready to engage in constructively fierce conversations, the bully always evaporates.

This was no small moment in the life of the boy. He had perhaps his first profound experience in the acquisition of transformative power and in the acquisition of transformative learning. He discovered that his power is manifest in the emergence of a more virtuous self. He discovered an elusive truth, we never lose our power, even when we surrender it to a bully. It is always there waiting to serve us. The key is the ignition of our virtues. A precious asset is a mentor who helps us access them.

The last sentence is essential to positive organizing. In the world there is an unlimited supply of dragons, they take many forms. There will always be a looming authority figure with low emotional intelligence. We will always be tempted to surrender our power. The solution is creating a culture of empowerment and a network of transformative mentors.

If we surround ourselves with people willing to ask us value clarifying questions they will help us to see an alternative future, they will invest in role playing, and they will trust us to confront the dragon.

If we live in an organization where there is no such culture or no such network, then we are on our own. We can surrender our power or we can ignite the emergence of our most virtuous self. We can also do one other thing. We can become a transformational influence. We can begin, from the bottom up, to gather believers and create a culture with the capacity to make dragons evaporate.

 

Reflection

  • When have I been abused?
  • When have I been abusive?
  • When have I seen dragons evaporate?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

 

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