We have all encountered them at work or seen them in the political arena: Leaders who are essentially bullies. They threaten, intimidate, tease and ridicule followers in an effort to get others to do their bidding. When it comes to bullies in the schoolyard or playground, as parents, we call them out (or at least complain) and we expect teachers and other authorities to police the bullies. Why then, do we, as adults, allow ourselves to be bullied by bosses, politicians, coaches and other authority figures?
1. We Value “Strong Man” Leaders. Perhaps it’s because of our evolutionary history, but when we select leaders we often seek out the “alpha” male (or female) – the dominant individual who will threaten or fight our enemies. Historically, we have elevated warriors to positions of leadership (e.g., generals who were elected U.S. Presidents), and we are drawn to leaders who appear strong, confident and who seem to take charge. The problem is that a portion of these “strong” individuals are bullies, or have gotten ahead by using bullying tactics.
2. We Believe the Ends Justify the Means. We are often so focused on our team/group/nation winning, that we are willing to allow our leaders to use unsavory tactics to get us there. As long as we win, or get the outcome we want, we are willing to look the other way when the leader uses bullying tactics to get the win. We see this all the time in partisan politics, where dirty, bullying strategies are used to denigrate opponents and win the race.
3. We Enable Them. Bullying leaders cannot succeed without willing followers. In many instances, bully leaders attract other bullies who help the leader do the dirty work. Sometimes, this inner circle of followers are worse bullies than the leader. Adolf Hitler, for example, surrounded himself with henchmen who were his equal, or worse, in terms of their cruelty. This band of bullies can be quite formidable and make it difficult for others to stand up to them.
4. The Bystander Effect. When we witness instances of leaders bullying others, we are outraged, but often don’t intervene. If other observers are present, a diffusion of responsibility occurs where everyone expects someone else to intervene, and the bystanders are essentially paralyzed. Moreover, we may fear that the bully’s wrath may turn on us if we take action. In other instances, we may blame the victim and rationalize that he or she “had it coming.” Sometimes we simply look the other way. This bystander effect allows bullies to stay in power.
5. Our Trusting Nature. When we elevate someone to a position of leadership, our general tendency is to trust that they will do the right thing. We want to believe that our leaders are honest and have good intentions, so we give them the benefit of the doubt, and wait for (and wish for) positive outcomes. The problem is that a bully got to where he or she is by bullying, and unless followers stand up to the bully leader, nothing is going to change.
Psychologists Robert Hogan and Rob Kaiser argue that when it comes to selecting managers or leaders, we should put our energy into weeding out the “bad apples” – the bullies, the narcissists, and the sociopaths. Gone unchecked, one bad leader can do a tremendous amount of damage.
Kind thanks to Psychology Today 22/02/17