Humans are the most social species on the planet. Most of us spend most of our lives working, eating, sleeping, and playing in groups that range in size from two people all the way up to nations and humanity as a whole.
Woven through the tapestry of our relationships are several major threads. One of these is power, which plays out in almost every group of any size. The only question is, do we use it for good or ill?
Like a hammer, power itself is neutral. It can be used justly and wisely for beneficial purposes, such as the necessary authority of a loving parent, a child’s popular friend protecting her from mean kids, a physically stronger spouse helping a more vulnerable one, or a government defending a country being invaded. Power can also be used unjustly and unwisely for harmful purposes, such as a parent beating a child, a big kid picking on a little one, domestic violence, or a government jailing its critics.
Depending on the situation, the unjust and unwise use of power can be called a variety of things: intimidation, abuse, fraud, discrimination, and tyranny to name a few. For my purposes here I’ll pick a term that’s down-to-earth and gets at our deep human nature as social primates: bullying.
Bullying and bullies are widespread. At all scales, from homes and schoolyards to boardrooms and presidential palaces, they create a vast amount of human suffering. What can we do?
In this short space, I’ll offer some summary suggestions. You can help them be concrete by applying them to bullies you’ve experienced or observed.
If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, swims like a duck . . . it’s probably a duck. Bullies have most if not all of these identifying characteristics:
- Dominating – Have to be the “alpha”; fear of looking “one-down”; thus must find targets who seem weaker; no compassion
- Defensive – Never wrong; fault and scorn others; avoid personal responsibility
- Deceptive – Manipulate grievances to gain support; blame scapegoats; cheat; hide truth since power is based on lies
Some people and organizations make use of bullies, sort of like profiting from a crime someone else commits. Or they pretend all is normal, or that a relatively small issue to the side is a more important focus than what the bully is doing. Or they try to justify bullying, such as: “both sides do it,” “but she’s your mother,” “kids are like that,” or “they need a tough CEO.” From playgrounds to parliaments, people with an authoritarian personality style often have an affinity for bullying leaders, and commonly form the core of their supporters.
– Rick Hanson Ph.D.
Read more: Stand Up to Bullies