Beware Boardroom Bullying

As many of you are doubtlessly aware, bullying isn’t something that happens only in our classrooms: bullying occurs in our boardrooms with surprising frequency. The tricky bit about it happening there is that we are, ostensibly, the ones setting a no-bullying example for our children.

Unfortunately, however, many of us are just as likely as our children to find ourselves overwhelmed and voiceless in these situations. With this in mind, I put together a few potential scenarios and suggestions for your response:

1. The “Give Me Your Lunch Money or Else” Scenario

This one happens when the bully has an idea he or she wants to push through without further discussion and sounds a lot like, “Do you have a better idea?? Then what is it?” Designed to seduce the group into thinking the problem is binary—i.e. there are only two possible solutions—it cuts off the possibility of further creativity and/or exploration. How can you respond? My suggestion would be to say, “I don’t have an answer—or all the answers—now or ever. I am pointing out that I think the situation merits further discussion, because I don’t think we’ve exhausted our options.”

2. The “Stop Crying or I’ll Give You Something to Cry About” Scenario

This one occurs when the bully is tired of countering others’ objections to a proposed course of action and sounds a lot like, “Fine– if you think you know so much more you can do the whole thing yourselves.” Designed to overwhelm the team with visions of an exhaustive workload it effectively ends further—potentially valid—conversation. How can you respond? “My goal in asking questions is not to prove I know more but to demonstrate there is more to consider. Can we take my questions one by one?”

3. The “Tell Anyone about This and You’ll Be Sorry” Scenario

This one generally happens one-on-one and sounds a lot like, “I know you don’t think this is the right course of action but with bonus time around the corner, I think you’ll agree it’s best not to say too much.” Designed to ensure you keep your mouth shut or risk a financial penalty, it is often the most difficult to manage, as you have no witness to what occurred. How can you respond? “I understand you would prefer to keep this conversation between us, but very few things occur in a vacuum and I wouldn’t want either of us to be penalized going forward.”

In every case, remember: it’s OK to take a breath, take a minute, call a recess; and even—if necessary—get a hall monitor.

Frances Cole Jones