Dear Thelma: I serve on a board, and there is a bully who is so bent on always getting his way that everyone has become afraid of him. I am sure he has been a bully his whole life. How do you handle an adult bully, and why do so many people on his level allow him to get by with it?
A: I, too, have experienced adult bullying diminishing a board. Through overbearing behavior this person rendered the board ineffective.
Adult bullying often is based on a need to control. That control is gained because of the power the bully has on the board, which the board has likely given to him. Adult bullies have a tendency in the beginning to lobby for their powerful position.
Once power is attained, it may be a lack of self-respect that makes it easy for bullies to take advantage of that power without regard for the people around them. When a person doesn’t respect himself, he can’t respect anyone else. That makes it easy for him to ignore his own bad behavior.
Coming from a place of power, the bully chooses to cause fear in others. Whether it’s fear of being maligned or fear of confrontation, it feels safer to let the bully have his way. At that point the board becomes separated. Each member is forced to take sides. Will you align with the bully or try to stand on your own?
The lobbying behavior is a red flag for me. When I observe a person lobbying for power on a board, I make a point to refrain from being judgmental but bring my observations about the behavior to other board members. Then I work to maintain my objectivity, ideas and commitment to the cause and avoid aligning myself with the bully.
A bully diminishes the strength of a board because he derails the membership from being attentive to the mission. Every meeting requires the energy to prepare for a battle with the bully rather than a focus on maintaining a strong commitment to support the mission and purpose of the board.
The more board members who can avoid aligning with a bully, the better. To be effective, board members must have their own power to get involved in discussions and decision-making tasked to the board. It is their right and their responsibility as board members.
We have heard much recently of Apple CEO Steve Jobs and his behavior, much of which has been defined as bullying and worse. Even now, nearly a year after his death, people are aligning either for or against. Those who admire all aspects of Jobs’ life see a man who let nothing get in the way of his vision. Those repelled by his behavior see a cruel tyrant.
I believe those who can advance their vision while maintaining respect and consideration for the people around them are the most successful in all aspects of their lives and the most admirable.
Bullying behavior includes embarrassing, intimidating, threatening and mocking others in order to preserve control or advance ideas. If you find yourself falling into these tendencies, take a step back and assess whether preoccupation with yourself has caused you to lose the ability to understand the feelings of others. Make changes now to make a positive impact on the world around you.
When faced with an adult bully, be confident, calm and clear. Name the behavior you find troublesome and state what is expected instead. It will take courage, but if more of us do it and support those who do, environments will improve for everyone.
Healthy relationships and good manners never go out of style.
Agree or disagree with Thelma’s advice? Post your comments or ask a question about etiquette at thelmadomenici.com. Thelma Domenici is CEO of Thelma Domenici & Associates, offering corporate coaching and contemporary social skills development programs to all ages.