The first time I was called a bully, I was 8 years old and had just coerced my Girl Scout troop into forgoing sleepaway camp for an overnight in my own backyard. I didn’t really like being away from home, and put my fear to work convincing nine third graders that my parent’s house, tucked into five acres of heavily wooded New Jersey mountaintop was in fact, a more “natural” experience than any well-oiled summer camp ever could be. “I don’t care if you’ve never been to Connecticut,” I told them, “That camp is stupid and you’re stupid for wanting to go.”
By the age of 13 I had become a skilled tyrant, an emotional manipulator of my peers. I was never a physical fighter, but I was certainly well-versed at getting what I wanted by any means necessary. I was no monster, but let’s just say I was responsible for a meltdown or two in a girls’ bathroom. My mother, if she’s reading this, is nodding her head in agreement. Now that I’m older and (nominally) less self-absorbed, I rarely feel compelled to criticize friends and colleagues for their decisions, but if I’m being 100 percent honest I can’t say that my bossy streak has ever completely left my system.
So when a ForbesWoman reader told me about a new e-book she was working on that would help me to look at my behavior in an objective way, I was intrigued.
“Try watching yourself over the coming weeks,” says Henriette Eiby Christensen, a Danish FW reader and the author of several titles on behavior including her newest "110 Ways To Detect A Bad Relationship." “Watch how people react when you speak to them, especially when you are upset with them. Look in their eyes. Do they look scared?”
Egads. I may be bossy … but am I a bully?
“It’s really difficult for us to look at our own behavior, especially as we mature” says Chuck Williams, director for the Center for the Prevention of School Aged Violence at Drexel University. “One of the markers of truly successful people is being able to do self-analysis, but it’s really a challenge. We all like to avoid dealing with our own short-comings.”
But with so much emphasis placed on school-aged bullying — not least of all the rash of adolescent suicides that have occurred as a result — a fresh eye has been cast on workplace bullying. Are adult bullies to blame for a generation of abusive kids? Are on-the-clock bullies pushing already stressed employees to their breaking point?
Signs point to yes. Bullying is known to be a learned behavior, so we are, in fact, passing it on to our kids. And more than 35 percent of employees said they had experienced workplace bullying, according to one 2010 study. Several suicides among adult bullying victims have made headlines in recent years, most notably managing editor Kevin Morrissey at the Virginia Quarterly Review who allegedly shot himself after enduring years of bullying behavior from a top editor at the paper. In summary: we’ve got to get a handle on this thing and start looking in the mirror.
But why is it so difficult to identify bullying in ourselves? One, because, as Williams says, we simply don’t want to.
Christensen’s take is that we were most often brought up in households where bullying behavior was the norm. For another, “bullying” is in some ways socially acceptable. “Especially at work,” says Dr. Joseph Hullett, a psychiatrist and senior medical director of clinical strategy for OptumHealth, Behavioral Solutions. “Any time there’s a hierarchical order where rank matters bullying is a part of the normal social order.”
In social systems with a pecking order it’s natural for higher-ups to exert power over subordinates. That behavior, he says, however unpleasant it may be for assistants round the world, is normal. So if you’re beginning to feel guilty for asking your secretary to restock the printer with paper, or to pick up the coffee every morning, don’t. Acting as an authority does not, in fact, make you a bully.
“When this kind of behavior becomes not normal,” says Hullett, “is when the goal is the actual experience of dominance.” Translation: when using power to get coffee, the coffee is the goal. Asking for coffee just to make a colleague feel small and unimportant, on the other hand, is another thing entirely.
“Using force or aggressive tactics in the work environment as a means of getting yourself a seat at the table is not uncommon or unacceptable,” he says, and Williams agrees that in the often-Darwinistic workplace is actually applauded. “But when your only goal is the experience of dominance or control over others,” Hullett continues, “That’s when things get ugly. That’s when the pattern of bullying emerges.”
I think it’s safe to say my own proclivity for bossiness falls short of bullying, but am still intrigued, and so I asked Hullett for a bit of info on the gender differences of bullying at work. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, roughly 58 percent of workplace bullies are women and, sadly but not surprisingly, 80 percent of female workplace bullies regularly target other women as their victims. What gives? “To the hammer, all the world’s a nail,” he says, “And a bully is most certainly a hammer.”
But where bullies in the schoolyard tend towards physical (alright, male) aggression, he says that workplace bullying is much more commonly about emotional manipulation, isolation and gossiping, skill-sets more commonly associated with female behavior than male. (Aside: we have GOT to stop treating each other like this, women. Really!)
Still, it’s not all terrible news. While bullying is, as often as it is a learned behavior, a habit that we are ill-equipped to reflect upon, Hullett, Williams and Christensen all agree that it’s a pattern that can be broken.
“People quit smoking every day,” Hullett says. With that in mind, the attached slideshow is a collaborative effort — and a useful tool — for self-diagnosis. Recognize one warning sign? You’re a boss. Two? You might be a b****. Three or more? You’re a bully, and you’d better get some help.
More from Forbes.com
- How not to behave at the office party
- How to lose friends and alienate coworkers with bad mobile behavior
- How to spot a frenemy at work
- The happiest and unhappiest cities to work in
- The 10 worst pieces of ‘good’ career advice
© 2012 Forbes.com