How Do You Know It’s Time for You to Confront a Bully?

The rapper formerly known as Kanye West conducted an anti-Semitic tirade a couple of weeks ago. (You can find it if you want to see it.) In his tirade, he bullied Jews.

He thought he was untouchable. His licensing deals, his promoters, all of his business people—he thought his business collaborators would leave him alone to allow him to continue to bully Jews.

He was wrong.

One of the best responses I saw was this Lucas Shaw tweet. (HT to Daniel in his Postcards newsletter.) The second paragraph is outstanding in its clarity and truth. Please read it, especially the part about the song being performed acapella, acoustic, and electric. (This link is the all-text version of that tweet plus more information.)

What struck me most about this debacle was the time it took some of his business collaborators to respond.

The garment business often works several seasons ahead—at least two quarters ahead. I suspect that’s what took Adidas to decide that it was time to confront West. They were looking at the real costs of no longer working with him, especially since they had already invested millions in the next 6-18 months of apparel. All that money was sunk cost—and there was no way to recoup it.

What about the various creative endeavors, such as concerts, movies, or books? Each of these efforts can take months (or years) to plan and finish.

West’s licensors or partners have a minimum of significant sunk cost: 3 months (quite optimistic) to 18 months to several years of investment. No one sees a dime from the collaboration until they release the apparel, have the concert, or somehow finish the work. These partners invested and have nothing to show until the work completes.

That’s why I have a little patience or empathy for his business collaborators.

I don’t have much patience because he’s been showing us who he was for several years now. He’s been incongruent, often blaming others, for his shortcomings. Bullying is another form of blaming.

The bullying problem is pervasive in business, academia, and certainly, celebrity. Each of us needs to decide when enough is enough.

Identify Bullying Behaviors

Let’s take the case of a bully at work, who claims his jokes are all “in good fun.” Except, those jokes make fun of people, not make fun with them. I’m thinking of the guy who talked about “big boobs” and whose jokes all denigrated Jews and people from Poland.

The first time I heard one of his so-called jokes, I said, “That’s not funny. It’s not funny to make fun of people’s bodies or backgrounds. Please apologize and don’t do it again.” (He tried to joke about it and I reminded him it was not a joke.)

I have a hairline trigger for these kinds of “jokes.” Aside from not being humorous, these supposed jokes break any psychological safety the team managed to create. In addition, the wording tends to splinter a team into solo people. Who can trust anyone with an unjeller like that?

When bullies splinter teams, the bully has a better chance of picking people “off” and making each person afraid for their safety. That’s psychological and physical safety—because bullies might inspire others to act.

Here’s a key phrase: “It’s toxic here. I just put my head down and work.” When I hear that, I know that the culture encourages—not discourages—bullies.

I only know about commercial workplaces, not academia, and not government. However, when leaders allow bullying—or even what appears to be bullying behavior—the workplace loses. However, in academia (and commercial workplaces), there is a particularly pernicious form of bullying: to get ahead, literally on the work of other people. (There’s a letter to the editor about how How bullying becomes a career tool in the journal of nature human behavior.)

However, you need to decide for yourself:

  • What you consider to be bullying behavior
  • Who that behavior affects
  • Your options to deal with it and what each of those options cost.

You might not agree with what I think is bullying or when to confront others. However, I offer these guidelines.

My Guidelines for When to Confront Bullies

Sometimes, I check to see if I heard correctly: “Did you mean this-thing?” If the other person says yes, then I confront that person. But sometimes, I’m wrong. When I am, I explain, “Oh, I thought I heard you disparage so-and-so.”

But once I know I’ve heard bullying, I’m comfortable with confronting that bully immediately—regardless of my position. That’s because I never feel as if I have that much to lose. I might worry about the sunk cost, but I know I can always work harder to deal with any costs. My integrity is more important than any costs I might incur.

In contrast, I don’t always confront bullies in social situations, except to leave. I choose to avoid conferences with people who tend to bully others. I don’t have much to lose and the bully has a lot more to gain if I remain. So I leave and avoid confronting people in public. (In my experience, confrontation rarely gets a useful reaction.)

But everyone at work does have potential losses—and those losses sometimes keep people silent. The apparel and creative arts industries around West? They had a ton of sunk cost—money they would never recoup if they spoke up. Of course, they might lose more if they stayed silent. Because people don’t necessarily tell you they no longer want your products or services. They find an alternative source.

We can’t predict the future. I recommend you clarify your boundaries, so you know in advance when your ends justify the means. Once you do, you can see the costs to you of supporting the bully or challenging the bully.

By definition, if you don’t challenge the bully, you support that person. This is a case where not speaking out means you do support the person.

Once you know your boundaries and possible losses, you might find it relatively easy to decide.

My Black-and-White Thinking Helps Me

My thinking here is quite black and white—very few, if any, shades of gray. That works for me, because I’m not worried about losses. I feel free to respond right away—assuming I check to make sure I understood what the other person said.

I suspect more of you have many more shades of gray. But do decide what behaviors a bully must do for you to confront that person. Or stop supporting the person.

The more time you use to make a decision, the more other people might suspect your decision. Did Adidas decide because they could not stand the publicity? Or, did they decide because they had actions to take before they could publicize their decision? Or was it something else?

Timing matters.

Decide the timing, the when, for yourself. If you’re like me, you might need to check to make sure you heard the person correctly.

Then, decide if you will confront, leave, or take some other action.

You’ll exercise your courage. And you’ll have a lot more respect for yourself when you do speak up. Your actions will be congruent with your beliefs.

Otherwise, you’re colluding with a bully.

And that’s the question this week: How do you know it’s time for you to confront a bully?

6 thoughts on “How Do You Know It’s Time for You to Confront a Bully?”

  1. Thanks for a great article Johanna. You are so right.
    For me it is also a question of the energy it takes to confront. If it is for someone else it is easier to do it. When it’s for myself I sometimes step back and spend my energy somewhere else.
    What is your take on the energy perspective?

    1. Mats, thanks. Glad you found this useful or thought-provoking. Good question!

      I think that when I am or feel as if I am in a position of leadership, I act. That’s why I tend not to act when I plan my conferences. I will act when I’m there, but if I choose not to go, I don’t bother acting. (That’s the energy part.)

      As an example, a colleague who enjoys my work asked me to be a part of an ongoing content-creating team. I looked at the team members, saw a bully, and said no. The colleague asked why and I said I was not interested in working with that bully. “Oh, that’s just the previous version,” colleague said.

      I said, “No, I will not have anything to do with anything that bully had a part of. Not now. Not ever. I appreciate you referencing my work, but I will not work with you on this. At all. Ever.” I am not sure where that work stands, but I’m not a part of it.

      For me the energy is tied up in my leadership.

    2. Mats (and Johanna) — Thanks. This is a really important subject, and only getting more so.

      I’m in an interesting place, because some of my identities are considered powerful in our culture (white, middle-class) and some are not. I try to educate myself about the factors that privilege me so that I can be someone who speaks up when the other person/people are too tired or too stressed or too at-risk to confront a problem; and I also try to listen closely for cues as to when it is or is not helpful to speak up.

      I’ve also learned how amazing it can feel to have someone speak up for a group I’m part of when I’m not sure I have the strength right now. It’s a lot harder — at least for me — to speak up for myself than it is to speak up for other people. These days, I’m trying to spend most of my time in places where we all speak up for one another; the more I can do that day-to-day, the more strength I have when I see something I need to speak up about.

      Like Mats, I find there are times when I just withdraw, when I feel like “that’s a fight I don’t need right now.” But I also know how valuable allies across all categories are at those times, and I try to remember to be one as well as to call on one.

      1. Michele, thanks for your comment and you’re welcome.

        It can cost a lot for us to speak up. I tend to be a little oblivious, so I don’t always realize when I should not speak up. It’s wonderful that you’re thinking about how to create allies. That might be as important as speaking up.

  2. About 15 years ago I joined a company as QA Manager. That company still did waterfall and so in the last couple weeks of any release there were long defect triage meetings to decide what we were going to defer to the first maintenance release. These meetings involved everyone in Product and Engineering, manager and above.

    In my short time there I had witnessed one Director of Product strong-arming a number of people to get her way. I smelled a bully.

    In one of the triage meetings she threw a tantrum over some defect that everyone but her voted to defer. I was not feeling well that day; I should have gone home. Instead there I was in that meeting with all of my filters down. And I let her have it with both barrels, in front of everybody. I didn’t say anything that would invoke HR, but it was not pretty nevertheless.

    My boss took me aside right after and coached me hard about tact. He wasn’t wrong. However, for the rest of the four years I worked there not only did this Director of Product never strong-arm me, she always approached me very, very gently. I watched her run roughshod over others, but never over me.

    If the company wasn’t going to deal with a bully, at least I managed to keep her from bullying me.

    1. Sometimes, we overrate tact. I see this a lot in organizations with a placating culture. The fact that HR did not need to be involved meant you were sufficiently respectful/congruent. Your experience about future bullying matches mine, too.

      Placating cultures trade off future psychological safety with current “harmony.” But that harmony is often short-lived, because the bully thinks he or she can get away with the behavior again. Hmm. I feel another blog post coming on. Thanks!

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