Bully Reaction

Extraordinary leaders can, at times, exhibit bully-like behavior.  Sometimes they can slip into and out of that behavioral mode unknowingly, unaware of the effects their behavior has on others.  I have interviewed such leaders and their staff members and will share some insights.

I have asked self-aware leaders – who have a sense of when they become aroused in a way that leads to bully-like behavior – what it feels like when they are in that state.  They describe a heightened sense of awareness and alertness – heightened “situational awareness,” as one leader described it. They also describe increased energy levels.  It is almost as if they are describing the feeling on gets after drinking a couple of cups of coffee. This state is likely the state induced in a Fight or Flight response – higher levels of adrenaline and insulin for energy and cortisone to kill pain.  This state can be exhilarating, perhaps addictive, and may itself be one of the reasons why a bully might pick a fight.

While in this aroused state, what is the bully looking for?  When asked this question, the answer is often capitulation:  I win, you lose, and you know you have lost.  One leader succinctly described that he looks for the objects of his attention “to roll over and pee on themselves.”  Of course, this is not literal but a reference to a submissive dog’s behavior in the presence of the dominant dog or person.

Also, I find that leaders who are inclined to have traits of bully-like behavior love to tell war stories.  They relish the telling and the retelling of battles, how they outmaneuvered their enemies, crushed them, and came out victorious.  In the recounting of one incident, the leader used the phrase “crushed them like bugs.”  This recounting of victories is also a source of great pride for these leaders.

On another occasion, I interviewed a staff member whose boss occasionally exhibits bully-like behavior.  This staff member said that she would always try to wait a day before acting on direction that came from the leader during his “heightened” state.  At such times, there tends to be a Ready-Fire-Aim approach.  These types of leaders want action and will often give direction that leads to action.  Once the leader has regained calm, the thinking center moves from the old brain (amygdala) to the reasoning brain (pre-frontal cortex), new ideas and direction will likely emerge.  If possible, better to wait for calm to return rather than act in the heat of the moment, was the sage advice from this staff member.


2 thoughts on “Bully Reaction”

  1. Hi Kimberly,

    Thank you for your openess. I appreciate how your self-aware perspective led you to an understanding of the toll the behavior was having on you. I admire your journey to rise above the need to employ the bully tool.

    Thanks also for great link. Again, both fascnating and frighting to know that some people score highly on that quiz.


  2. User Avatar

    Thanks for this insightful piece peering into the minds of people engrossed in a bullying state. In my experience entering this state I felt my entire focus was on getting the results that were required by the project . . . no matter what the personal cost. And the personal cost was not limited to the people I pushing past, through, or over to get those results. There was a cost to ME. I was keenly aware that I was becoming a bully in order to achieve some business results that were not going to happen in time any other way (at least any other way that I could think of), and that I was sacrificing my good relationships with those around me in order to achieve those results.

    Over the years I got tired of creating successes that I could not personally share in because I’d alienated people in order to achieve them. I began to realize that I was like a mob hit man . . . being used by others to do the distasteful work that needed done, but not really welcome at dinner. Sometimes time pressures and deadlines conspire to make bullying seem like an attractive way to get immediate results, but I no longer find money sufficient reason to bring out this particular leadership tool.

    People who actually DELIGHT in their bullying, brag about it, enjoy shaming others, should take Dr. Bob Sutton’s “http://electricpulp.com/guykawasaki/arse/”>”ARSE Test”. I only score about 17% on a good day, but I’m sure there are still days when I reach the “certifiable” level. On those days I rely on my trusted friends and colleagues to call me on inappropriate behavior and help me get back on track.

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