Can bullies really change?

Dec 16 2008 by Derek Torres Print This Article

Most of us, regardless of our age, can still remember the bully at school in our adolescent years. In fact, it probably wouldn't surprise you to learn that he probably still is a bully, even though he now wears a tie to work and has an MBA.

I'm reminded of this timeless character because I was reading an article offering advice on how to prepare for confrontation with the workplace saboteur (their words, not mine).

The article offers your typical politically correct, made-for-corporate-America response: be assertive, take notes, get management involved, look for explanations.

But while this is all very good advice, is it usually effective? Will the workplace saboteur appreciate that you've taken the time to rationalize his or her logic and behavior? Is he or she going to back off once a middle manager proceeds to issue a mild telling off?

Count me among those that believe that people don't change. I don't believe that the onus should be on us non-saboteurs to have to find peace or common ground with someone else who is the problem. While this article is full of good advice (much like a parent gives their child about not fighting back when the playground bully rears his head), it's not necessarily full of advice that will make the victim of the workplace saboteur any easier.

Unfortunately, I don't have any better solutions to offer, at least not ones that are likely to be applauded by readers, but, on occasion, it would be nice to see the saboteur get a taste of his or her own medicine!


Older Comments

Dear Derek,

I cannot agree more with the futility and irony of articles such as the one you mentioned. I have been researching and coaching what I refer to as “abrasive” bosses for the majority of my career, and have come up with some better solutions to offer. Advising people on how to tolerate workplace abuse is a practice peculiar to the workplace ' you don’t see any articles telling marital partners “How to survive you abusive spouse”, or children’s books teaching “How to psych out your abusive parent.” Workplace abuse (bullying) can and should not be tolerated. But how do we solve the problem?

We need a better understanding of the phenomenon. Why do bosses behave destructively with their coworkers? And why do employers fail to intervene? Too often the conclusion is simplistic: “Because bosses and employers are uncaring and evil.” As an executive coach who has been coaching and researching this population over the past fifteen years, I have found the answers to be more complex. The majority of “bully” bosses are neither evil nor crazy: in fact, they are most often blind to the wounds they inflict, and when they are made aware of the impact of their destructive styles, they experience remorse and/or embarrassment and work to change. They become aggressive because they experience profound anxiety at the prospect that coworkers will perform incompetently, thereby making them appear to be incompetent as bosses. Second, I’ve found that employers don’t intervene not because they don’t want to (what company seeks exposure to harassment litigation?). They don’t intervene because they are afraid and because they don’t know how. They are afraid of losing a technically valuable person in some cases, or afraid of facing the abrasive boss’s hostility and/or retaliation. And they don’t know how to overcome the characteristic wall of denial they will encounter: “I tried to talk to him about it, but he just denies there is a problem ' he blames everything on his employees. I just can’t get through.” Even if they do get through, abrasive bosses are at a loss to know how to manage without aggression., having learned this style through earlier family or workplace experiences.

One solution lies in training employers how to conduct an intervention with those who engage in workplace bullying, which consists of 1.) breaking through the abrasive executive’s denial, 2.)setting consequences for failing to change and b.) offering help through executive coaching specifically designed for this population. The latter step is the second solution: specialized executive coaching that develops insight in abrasive bosses and shows them how to manage with carrots, not sticks. Firing them doesn’t work , because they will just go on to work somewhere else. I write in more detail about these strategies in my book Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to End Unnecessary Roughness in the Workplace (Jossey-Bass Management Series, 2007).

Finally, can people change? Of course they can. Am I to believe that you have not changed from the age of 18? I should point out that our first Chief (Abrasive) Executive, George Washington, early on recognized his failure to control his anger with others. Thomas Jefferson described Washington’s temper as “naturally irritable and high toned”, stating “when it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath.” Alexander Hamilton resigned as his subordinate for this exact reason. He worked hard throughout his life to learn how to contain his management aggression, including copying all 110 of the Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation written by the French Jesuits and carrying this with him his entire life. He succeeded to the point where his portraitist, Gilbert Stuart commented that Washington’s temper was under “wonderful control.” “Mr. Stuart is right.” Washington responded.

There’s hope. We just need to gain more insight into the problem, as we have done with other forms of abuse.

Laura Crawshaw, Ph.D. The Boss Whisperer™

Laura Crawshaw, Ph.D.

Bullies are at risk for problems, too. Bullying is violence, and it often leads to more violent behavior as the bully grows up. It's estimated that 1 out of 4 elementary-school bullies will have a criminal record by the time they are 30. Some teen bullies end up being rejected by their peers and lose friendships as they grow older. Bullies may also fail in school and not have the career or relationship success that other people enjoy.