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« The generous skeptic | Main | Evoking online trust »

Sure, but he's our bully

There have always been bullies among us, and it's worth taking a moment to see how our culture has built a role for them to be useful heroes. Taught or not, bullying keeps showing up.

We often (for a while) view bullies as powerful or brave or important--as long as they are our bullies. Richie Incognito, Chris Christie, Rob Ford—each has a long list of supporters, people who have defended a particular bully as a passionate man of the people, as doing their job, as the visceral anti-elite, winning a battle that's worth fighting for.

At some level, it makes sense to have a bully on your side. If you're going to war, the thinking goes, who better to represent you than someone intent on belittling and demeaning the other side?

If it's us against them, the bully who represents 'us' is our hero.

Given the millenia that primates (and other species) have thrived on the idea of bullying, where's the problem? As long as our bully is stronger than their bully, it seems as though we're in good shape...

But what happens with the economy changes (and the culture along with it)? The zero-sum game of world domination or even of the gridiron seems to reward the selfish, war-like domination that the bully embraces. But in the connection economy, the world of our future, it's pretty clear that we're not playing a zero sum game, and the hawkish win-at-all-costs behavior of the bully is actually a significant cost, not an asset.

Bumbling Toronto mayor Rob Ford has put on quite a show for his core constituency, but along the way, has alienated the people he needed to work with. Instead of weaving a future based on productivity and innovation, he's created momentary excitement sure to be followed by plenty of downsides as his city works to regain its forward momentum.

The management of the Miami Dolphins initially encouraged Richie Incognito to "toughen up" one of their players, as if bullying serves a productive purpose within an organization. As they've learned, it doesn't work.

The bully might be able to thrill the crowd with some juicy behavior, but the thrill wears off quicker than ever. And the person who just got bullied may never contribute as much as he is capable of.

In your organization, there are no doubt bullies who can win their point, increase their power and defeat their enemies. But are they creating real value for the organization as a whole? In an economy based on trust and connection, how does the inevitable fraying that the bully causes lead to a positive outcome for the long haul?

I don't think we can make the bullying impulse disappear. But it's pretty clear we can create organizations that don't tolerate it, creating an environment where the bully is never the hero. We probably ought to try.

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