I hope you had a chance to watch Sunday night’s episode of Dateline, “My Kids Would Never Bully”. Teenagers were secretly filmed reacting to a number of “staged” bullying situations while their parents watched on hidden cameras. In almost all the staged situations except one, the teens eventually spoke up in defense of the kid being bullied. The situation where the bullying went totally unchecked and in fact even escalated, was when an adult was in the room to witness the bullying and ignored it.
I admit it was difficult to watch the adult stand by in silence as the actors ganged up on one kid in the group, even knowing it wasn’t real. You could really feel the pain and humiliation of the kid being bullied and the discomfort of the teens who were watching. Since seeing the program, my mind has continued to drift back to that show and the insights it offered about peer pressure, teen insecurity and how much courage it took for the teens to speak up against the bullies.
And it made me wonder….do teen bullies from the schoolyard grow up to be adult bullies in the workplace?
I think like the teens on hidden camera, we all know the right thing to do when someone is being bullied, but we are sometimes hesitant to get involved. Maybe we are afraid of making the bully mad or being dragged into a situation that doesn’t really involve us. But the truth is, even if we are not the focus of the bully’s attention, if we know it is going on, we are already involved.
We as adults may have the same lessons to learn as the teens on the Dateline episode. Our work does not lie in educating people that bullying is wrong. Bullying is never acceptable and whether it happens in the halls between classes or the conference room during a team meeting, we all know it is wrong when we see it. The challenge is to help people find the courage to stand up for someone else, to be the first one to voice what we all are feeling and what we all know to be true: that the harassment is wrong and it needs to stop! As the teens in the program showed us, once one person speaks up in defense, others find their voice and join in.
I’ve seen bullying in the workplace take the form of name calling and slurs, practical jokes that are cruel, rude and disrespectful interactions and aggressive behavior. While harassment is difficult to deal with when it is a co-worker, it is absolutely overwhelming and disempowering when it is your boss doing the bullying. The threat of retaliation or job loss can be very real.
But here’s what I believe. While the issues and dynamics seem more complex in the workplace, underneath it all there really isn’t that much difference between the playground and the boardroom. Bullies are most effective when they have an audience and the tacit approval of those who look on, even if that approval is in the form of silence, and it fuels their aggressive and demeaning behavior. Remove the approval and you remove much of their power.
I felt compassion and a deep sense of disappointment for the kids who made the choice during the program to condone and participate in the bullying. I think they knew it was wrong in their heart, but peer pressure and other factors colored their decision making. Once the staged situation was revealed, they clearly felt humiliated and embarrassed in front of their parents. We can only hope that they’ve learned an important life lesson from this experience and can use that knowledge to make better choices going forward.
As for us, every day we face the same kinds of decisions the teens did in the program; the choice to act in support of what we know to be right or to remain silent and avoid getting involved in the conflict. Like the teens, if we all knew someone was watching on a hidden camera I bet we’d all make the right choice, if only to avoid public humiliation.
So my question to you today is…why not act like someone is always watching? Live as if everything you do will eventually be known and you will have few regrets. That is the true test of your character.
With that being said…is there a situation right now that you could help by speaking up? In my experience it really isn’t a question of whether you should speak up but how you should do it. Let me know if I can support you as you take action.
As always, your comments are greatly appreciated and please share this post if you found it helpful to you.