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Taking the Venom out of Toxic Leadership

Bullying is counter to military values and teamwork. Yet, it is frequently a fact of life in the military. In part, this is because rank gives bullies power over people they outrank. In addition, yelling at people and getting in their face is nothing new in the military. This is why there is often a fine line between motivating subordinates and being a bully.

Example

“Sir, I wanted to let you know that I’ve gotten another complaint about SFC Haun. He’s still getting a little out of control, yelling at his squad leaders, and saying some pretty nasty things about them in front of their troops.”

“Listen, First Sergeant, we’ve got a whole lot on our plate right now. I’ve talked with Haun’s LT and he’s counseled him. Haun gets the job done. His troops are just going to have to get used to him and stop being so damned sensitive! We’ve got a mission here and I don’t have time for more of this,” replied the commander. “What else you got?”

“That’s all, sir.”

Toxic leaders target individuals

"By the time {bullies} join the military, they are no longer amateurs. They know how to spot potential targets... and then capitalize on the sport.

From the commander’s point of view, SFC Haun does his job and he doesn’t give the commander any crap, so from the commander’s perspective this isn’t a big deal. However, if you are on the receiving end of a bully’s rants, it is quite a different matter.  The official guidance on dealing with bullies is to report them to your chain of command, who should take action. If that doesn’t produce satisfactory results, present your complaint to the IG. While technically this is correct, as this example shows, it doesn’t always work. It is also likely to label you as a wimp or a troublemaker.

Make a stand

Self defense against bullies is far more effective than the old school rule of tell the teacher. To defend yourself, you must first recognize a bully as a bully. When drill sergeants get in your face and yell at you to keep going and don’t quit, it is not bullying. They are doing their job. Developing a tough skin and focusing on the task at hand are critical skills in the military. Just because someone is rude or abrupt, doesn’t necessarily mean they are a bully. There are, unfortunately, plenty of people who lack tact and polite manners, both in and out of the service.

"Real bullies tend to single out individuals for personalized intiminidation"Real bullies tend to single out individuals for personalized intimidation. They get their kicks by belittling and intimidating people they see as vulnerable or weak. For bullies, this is their personal sport. By the time they join the military, they are no longer amateurs. They know how to spot potential targets, launch the first probe attack, and then capitalize on the sport. They are also quite skilled at how to play the game if someone reports them. For example, “Sir, I’m just trying to motivate ‘em to do better. They’re taking this way too personally. Sir, I’ve been in the Army for eight years. Trust me. I know how to get the job done.”

Bullies most often target the individual who is different. This may be the new guy or the minority, whether that is a person of a different ethnic or racial group, different gender, or gay or lesbian. They also look for loners and people who work hard to be nice to everyone, avoiding confrontation at all costs. For the record, men don’t have a corner on bullying; women can be bullies, as well.

While the verbal attacks of bullies can be extremely painful, in the beginning bullies are seldom physical, as in pushing or hitting someone. They are testing their target to see how they react. The first time someone bullies you, you could logically ignore it. Maybe they’re just having a bad day. But if they bully you a second time, you have to recognize the behavior for what it is and be prepared to defend yourself. Unfortunately, in the military you can’t get your dukes up, ready to hit them, although this is tempting. If you sense that you are dealing with a bully, you need to plan your strategy and be ready to stand your ground.

Taking a stand against toxic leaders

"No matter how nasty they may be... Do not back down or apologize."

With rare exceptions, the most important thing is NOT to react to what the bully has said to you. They want to suck you into an encounter which they will invariably control, and they want to see you miserable. No matter how nasty they may be, do not take their comments to heart or dwell on them. Mentally shove their words and gestures straight down the crapper, because that is where they belong. Do not back down or apologize. Saying I’m sorry to a bully is the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire. Bullies feed on this.  If your lip starts to quiver, or you look down, or worst of all, tears start to roll down your face, you have lost the fight.  Don’t waste your time arguing with them or verbally defending yourself at this point. Whatever you say, they will twist to their own devices and fire back at you. Your objective should be to stand your ground and refuse to let them rile you up. By doing this, you deprive them of the satisfaction of jerking you around.

Respectfully refuse to engage

When the bully outranks you, military courtesy still rules. However,  you can use this to your advantage. Don’t look away. Instead, look straight at the bully with your eyes locked on their face, as disgusting as he or she may be. If you can’t manage that, focus on something in the distance just over their shoulder. When they say something to you and wait for your response, take a slow breath and then give them a level, clear and unemotional response.

Example

SGT Davidson had singled out SPC Khalid as his latest target for bullying. SPC Kahlid was quiet, a hard worker, and went out of his way to get along with everyone. One evening SGT Davidson got SPC Khalid alone in their housing unit and began interrogating him. “Kahlid, why don’t you ever get your shit in order? You can’t keep your gear clean–you’re a f___in’ ass sorry excuse for a Soldier.”

He was surprised when SPC Kahlid stood up, came to attention and just looked squarely at him. SGT Davidson stepped closer and said, “Did you hear what I said?”

SPC Kahlid said evenly, “Yes, Sergeant!”

To which, SGT Davidson replied, getting even closer, “Who do you think you’re talking to, s___head?”

No matter what he said, to include “You are a flat-out worthless piece of s__t!”, all SPC Kahlid said was “Yes, Sergeant” or “No excuse, Sergeant.” He was pissed, but he sure as hell didn’t want SGT Davidson to know it. SGT Davidson ranted on. When he finally ran out of breath, he turned away from SPC Kahlid in disgust. SPC Kahlid, still standing, said, “Will that be all, SGT?” to which SGT Davidson responded with an obscene gesture. Still standing tall, SPC Kahlid walked outside.

Distance yourself from a bully-leader.

"Your next stage of defense is to keep some distance between yourself and the bully. Be alert to your surroundings. Stick with your teammates or your friends and don’t allow the bully to corner you by yourself.

Refusing to let the bully get your goat should be your first line of defense, even if he outranks you. Practice your hard look. Stare directly at yourself in the mirror with a you can’t upset me look until you can put that face on in an instant. It doesn’t hurt to also rehearse your flat, level responses in advance. You will gain confidence by doing this and you will be ready to stand up to the bully when he or she launches an attack.

Your next stage of defense is to keep some distance between yourself and the bully. Be alert to your surroundings.  Stick with your teammates or your friends and don’t allow the bully to corner you by yourself. Bullies, who target individuals, usually don’t want an audience. The exception is with bullies who badger someone in order to show off in front of others, in which case the calm, direct look and you can’t upset me attitude still rules. If the bully gets you alone, be prepared for a verbal attack. Take the initiative to put yourself between him and the exit before he can launch an attack. Don’t wait and hope for them to cool off and be nice. Bullies seldom calm down during a rant. They are getting off by watching your response. As in the previous example, when the opportunity presents itself, beat feet and get the hell out of there.  Go where there are other people. Generally a bully will not pursue you and risk having witnesses to his or her behavior. Later they may corner you with, What’s wrong? You too chicken to talk to me? Again, use the direct look and unemotional responses. Sooner or later they will drop the subject, because you are depriving them of what they crave.

Start taking notes

If the bullying persists, start keeping a written record of the dates, times, locations, witnesses if any, and a few key points of what the bully says or does. If his behavior is reported, you will have valuable documentation to support your team members and the chain of command in taking disciplinary action. Not surprisingly, bullies don’t keep records, so your specifics will carry considerable weight.

The personality of a bully doesn’t change. They aren’t beginners at this sport and they will continue to try to intimidate you, until they realize that they are wasting their time, because they can’t get a rise out of you. When you repeatedly refuse to play the game with them, they will move on to someone else. It might seem logical to discuss the bully’s behavior with them. There can be a place for this, but never attempt to talk with them about their behavior while they are in full bully mode. This is the equivalent of trying to reason with someone who is drunk or stoned. Wait until they have cooled off and you have made a written memorandum for record of what happened. Also, consider what your objective is and what you can reasonably expect as an outcome. You can’t modify the basic personality of a bully, particularly if they outrank you. This is who they are and they aren’t likely to change. Especially if you are a junior Soldier or NCO, the bully may take this as an opportunity to give you a little more of their ugly medicine or tell you that you are just imagining things. Sometimes the best thing to do in these situations is nothing.

Do your best to eliminate this behavior

If you are a leader, be on the alert for bullies in your organization. With their experience, they will be careful not to let you see their intimidating behavior. In fact, bullies are often great suck-ups to their bosses in order to gain advance credit in the event something happens and they get caught. When you clearly identify someone who has bullied his or her subordinates, you must make your point in the most assertive manner possible and tell them to Knock this off!! Do you understand? You need to have one or more witnesses to this counseling session and you should document it in a formal counseling statement. Advise your boss of what happened and the action you have taken. Beyond that, be on the alert for indications of future bullying and be prepared to take disciplinary action or recommend it, depending on your position in the organization. An advantage in dealing with bullies in the military is that although you cannot change their personality, you can usually control their behavior while they are under your authority, provided you stick to your guns.

Leaders also have a responsibility to coach their team members on how to recognize bullying behavior and stop it when it starts through self defense. Not everyone has the advantage of growing up in a family where they learn early on how to defend themselves against bullies. Help them to gain confidence by using role playing exercises and open discussions. Individuals who are targeted by a bully need to understand that they are not the problem. Sure, there may be some aspects of their duty performance that need improvement, but this is not justification for a bully attack. Bullying is counterproductive to team cohesion, regardless of where it occurs.

Consider the overall health of the team

Teamwork is the backbone of every good military organization. Look out for the other members of your team, when you know there is a bully around. Protect each other and do not allow the targets of bullies to become isolated. If you witness someone being bullied, have the courage to step in and stop the behavior if you have the rank necessary. To do otherwise, makes you an accessory to the bully, even though that may not be your intention. If you don’t have the rank, don’t leave your teammate alone with the bully if you can help it. Stand by in the area even if the bully tells you to get lost. Listen to what is going on and support your team members. No bully can defeat a determined team.

Bullies are unfortunately a fact of life and their attacks take many forms. To successfully counter a bully, you must stand up for yourself–refuse to allow the bully to intimidate you or suck you into his or her game. Anticipate bullies, prepare for a potential attack, and if it comes, stand your ground. No one else can do this for you. The more often you do it, the easier it will become. The word will also get around that you are a force to be reckoned with, and bullies will leave you alone.

posted on 04/18/2012 under Articles
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Jo B. Rusin is a retired soldier, who spent the majority of her career in Regular Army troop units from platoon leader to commander of a support brigade in the Gulf War. As a combat service support soldier, Jo B. served in units composed of both men and women from all racial and ethnic groups. She is a strong believer in the ability of soldiers to succeed, regardless of whether they are men or women or where they came from. Jo B. is the author of a number of military leadership books, including Move Out: The Insider's Guide for Military Leaders; Move to the Front: The Classic Guide for Military Women; and Women on Your Team: A Man's Guide to Leading Women. JoRusin.com

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