Bullies

The ease with which they finished each other’s sentences, completed each other’s thoughts was so graceful, seamless that they could have been sisters. They’ve worked together for years and as they sat on the couch in my living room, on that Sunday afternoon, they nervously fingered the agenda they’d brought.

It was a list of the issues they’d wanted to discuss, a list of potential solutions to their problem. They’d wanted feedback on their proposed solutions. They wanted to remain positive.

“Okay,” I said, “but before we go to the solutions, can you tell me about the problem?”

The eyed each other, paused. K turned to L: “Go ahead. Tell him about the article in the Times.”

An article about a rival organization had come out on a Saturday.  L had read it and understood how the Times had positioned the rival as moving directly into their space, becoming even more competitive. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was how her boss would take it. She knew he’d go ballistic. But, drained from the years of withstanding his tirades, she finished her coffee and did nothing.

She paid for that coffee on Monday morning. The boss came storming into the office, blowing past all of L’s staff, and started screaming at her. He was angry that the Times had gotten it so wrong. He was angrier still that L hadn’t jumped all over this “problem” and alerted him over the weekend. He was angriest that his board members were concerned and had emailed him. He had been unprepared and he was furious.

Of course this wasn’t the first time. It was a long-standing pattern. But K and L wanted to be strong women. They didn’t want to complain. They wanted to find a solution. They wanted to see what I could help them dream up in terms of changed structures or changes in the way they respond to get their boss to stop yelling.

I said, “Other than in case of fire, there’s no excuse for yelling.”

They were shocked. I repeated my line, adding, “If a friend came to you to tell you that their spouse was hitting them, would you sit with them and concoct ways to make sure the spouse didn’t get angry? Abuse is abuse—plain and simple.”

We’ve all worked with bullies and, unfortunately, in the business of early-stage businesses—where so many companies are run by founders and funded by investors—there are a lot of bullies out there.

I was 13. Living in Gravesend, Brooklyn. My bully was named Sal Quartucci. He was a bit of a manic, hyper Chihuahua-type of kid He’d hope around, spit out his ideas for cool things to do, and try to get you to agree with him. One summer night, we were hanging out in front of Sts. Simon and Jude church on Avenue T when Sal got a bright idea. He wanted to cross McDonald Ave.  to “beat up the Jews.” We lived on Italian side of the avenue and there was a fairly large community of Orthodox Jews who lived on the other side.

I was disgusted. I was afraid. I was pissed. Mumbling something about the whole thing being stupid, I turned to go home. Sal leapt in front of me, calling me a faggot, a pussy, for not wanting to be up some old Jewish guys. I pushed past him and he ran in front of me. Again, goading me, hounding me. Suddenly, scaring the crap out of myself, I grabbed his shirt, threw him down on the ground, punched him the nose. I can still hear the crack and still see the blood on my hand. Our friends pulled me off him and I ran home, shaking.

I thought of Sal as K and L told me of the bullying, the screaming, the berating they’d withstood for more than ten years. Part of me wanted to deck their boss but I searched my head, my experience, my heart for advice on how to respond to them.

I then thought of M.

M and I started working together only a few weeks ago. At the December board meeting, one of his board members—his core investor—told him his job was on the line. This investor had put a few hundred thousand dollars into the company 18 months before. It was a first round, and it’d be combined with some friends and family money. This was M’s first business, his first time as a CEO.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about an investor or director expressing their view that the company may be failing, that the CEO may be failing. Indeed, their implicit responsibility is to identify problems in advance.

But what made this bullying was the style. No warning. No discussion. In fact, the month before the same director had told M that he was the best first-time CEO he’d yet worked with. It was the whiplash that was so troublesome.

In our first session, M and I worked through some of his options. When he called for his second session, he surprised me.

He’d gone to lunch with the director and confronted him.

“When you said that to me, “ he reported he told him, “It had the opposite effect of what you’d wanted. Instead of focusing me, and challenging me, you scared me. All I could think about for weeks was what a terrible job I was doing. How does that help our shareholders?”

I was thrilled. “What’d he say?” I asked.

“He apologized. He told me I was right. And then we started talking about the challenges to the business model.” In the end, confronting the director changed the whole dynamic.

A few years ago, a VC friend of mine called me about one of his portfolio company CEOs. The young man is brilliant, innovative, brash and terrific at fund-raising. In some ways, a VC’s dream but he’s also unpredictable, impulsive and a screamer.

I sent the VC  a copy of Michael Maccoby’s HBR article, Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons.

“That’s him,” the VC emailed me, “that’s the CEO. What do I do?”

Maccoby recommends getting the leader a “trusted confidante,” someone who can pierce the narcissism with a straightforward “Cut the shit out.”

I shared the suggestion and added that this guy could use coaching—probably even therapy.

K and L sat quietly as I talked about possibly talking to the boss (as M had done). I suggested trying to engage a board member—we rejected that thought because the boss is so paranoid.

I suggested the Maccoby’s “trusted confidante.” The guy had fired everyone who could play that role.

I suggested trying to implement 360-degree reviews so the board—which is no doubt fully aware of this guys antics but for a variety of reasons unwilling to confront him on his behavior—would have no choice but to deal with it.

In the end, though, I was frustrated. I had little to offer them. I could counsel them, help them get through the week, help them deal with the residual fall out of these tirades but there was nothing they could do to change this guy’s behavior entirely. They could build little coping strategies but they were not going to change this guy.

As they got up to leave, they thanked. ‘This was so helpful,” one said.

“Why?” I asked. “We didn’t really change anything.”

“But we did,” they explained. “You helped us realize this isn’t our fault.”

I realized then beyond making dysfunctional organizations more dysfunctional, beyond getting in the way of actually executing on the business at hand, the true cost of bullying is the damage it can do to one’s self perception. And that’s the real tragedy.

  • http://twitter.com/ScottABarnett Scott Barnett

    I had a bully in junior high school that I figured out how to deal with successfully – it's important that you do get bullied because it's going to happen in “real life” and you may as well learn how to deal with it vs. ignore or avoid it. On the other hand, I can't imagine how any entrepreneur who has dealt with VC's, boards, customers, etc. could ever fathom acting this way – 'do unto others' is no more obvious than a manager treating their team with the respect they know they have earned themselves.

    • jerrycolonna

      I think the lack of awareness of the other, which can sometimes make folks powerfully innovative, blocks their ability to see what they do.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    The trend of emotional and mental abuse is a terrible reoccurring pattern in our society. My advice would be to leave the organization if it's unwilling to correct their boss's behavior. Intolerable situations becoming tolerated because the involved parties believe there's no alternative. But that's the mistake.

    There's ALWAYS an alternative to abuse.

    • jerrycolonna

      I hear you, Mark. For the two women, a question worth exploring is why have they stayed so long. Or, even more, why do people put up with it. The answer is sometimes there's no choice.

      • http://www.spiritmanagement.nl/ Fred Wiersma

        Not sure about ´sometimes there´s no choice´. That seems disempowering. People put up with this kind of behaviour for several reasons. Once they see their own pattern they can change it. As a coach I might ask: 'What is the learning for you from this situation?' Because no matter how bad the situation, there's always something to learn from it.

        BTW great post! I like your writing style.

        • jerrycolonna

          Thanks for helping me re-think. I think my disempowering reaction stemmed from my own feelings of helplessness and my anger at the bully.

      • http://mileslennon.com Miles Lennon

        I think that sometimes people put up with the bullying because they think that the bullying is a side-effect of being part of something successful. I also believe that some people get bullied into actually believing that their experiences are close to the status quo and that anybody who challenges that has “lost their edge.”

        • jerrycolonna

          I think that's often right Miles. And it can also lead to them thinking that a hostile environment is the norm.

  • http://www.callmekung.com/ Kung

    Beautiful. If you have a book with writing of the quality that you've been posting with, I would definitely buy it. And if not…what are you waiting for?!

    • jerrycolonna

      Dang Kung, that was a very coach-like comment. Thank you. So the evil plan (thanks Hugh from Gapingvoid) is to write a book. I had a deal this summer to write a book (about the fears and emotional challenges of work). I scrapped those plans when I realized that with my coaching schedule as it is, I'd never make the deadlines. Then, I thought through what I really wanted to do (and Seth Godin's writing on the subject helped as did, eventually a conversation with him). What I'm really after if finding a way to reach and connect with more people than the business model of coaching allows (one on one coaching is enormously nourishing and rewarding but isn't particularly “scaleable”). So I thought workshops/seminars and a blog. (Which then would lead to a book…a book, as Seth says, as souvenir.) So there's that…
      …but there's also something else going on…I'm writing (again–I used to be a journalist) and writing feeds me.
      So thanks, Kung, your comment means a lot to me.

      • http://www.callmekung.com/ Kung

        You're welcome! It was a self-serving comment, honestly; I have no business coaching anybody right now! Keep up the excellent writing and I suppose I will be satisfied until the “souvenir” comes out.

        Best,
        Kung

        • jerrycolonna

          Oh I didn't see it as a self-serving comment at all! I thought it was wonderfully supportive (calling something “coach-like” in my world is a good thing!) Thanks.

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  • http://codercofounder.wordpress.com/ Ilya

    I've been fortunate enough not to experience similar situations in my professional life, but I do think it's one of those things where once a cheater always a cheater. I am not a big believer in therapy and coaching, abusers usually stay abusers, so the best advice to anyone in this situation is to get out ASAP. Of course, there are always circumstances that make it more complicated than it seems at a distance.

  • http://mileslennon.com Miles Lennon

    Jerry,

    Excellent post. Your ability to capture the intricacies of these types of situations is inspiring. The problem with a fear-driven workplaces is that they lead to degradation of risk taking or going above and beyond. When there is an obvious cliff between a job well done and a job terribly done (worthy of firing or scolding) then the employee will work only within the confines of what he or she perceives to be conservatively accomplishable. Put simply, bullies create a CYA ambience. As we've heard from @dondodge and others, some of the most successful companies in the world are that way because they set impossible goals (Google). This can't be done in an environment run by bullies.

    • jerrycolonna

      again…great point about the relationship between a bullying environment the overall lack of long-term effectiveness.

  • http://vruz.tumblr.com/ vruz

    Great post Jerry, I enjoyed the linked Maccoby article too, so thank you.

    One question, do you have experience in settings where the narcissistic one is a co-founder and his/her co-founders awaken to the realisation of what they're really dealing with?

    Any startup crisis between co-founders due to bad cases of narcissism at play?

    Thanks again for your illustrative and very well written post.

    • jerrycolonna

      Oh absolutely…in the case I cite above…the brilliant, narcissistic executive also drove out two of his co-founders. It's a shame because often times the best “trusted confidante” is a co-founder.

  • chrisdorr

    Excellent post. Just before I read this I received this note via Facebook from a CEO bully I once reported to, who I have not had any contact with since leaving the company. He wrote,

    “Scares me to think more than a decade has past since our tenure at (company name deleted). Thought of you after speaking to (name deleted) recently. I was very mean to you then. I was miserable in the job and took it out on you. Have always felt bad about that. I really was a horse's ass. Accept my apology, ten years late. Hope you and family are well”

    It guess it is never too late to accept responsibility and make an apology.

    • jerrycolonna

      Wow…that's amazing. Thanks for sharing it.

  • http://charliecrystle.blogspot.com/ Charlie Crystle

    I think I've been on both sides of it, and the fact is personal relationships are complicated when there's a lot at stake. That doesn't excuse bad behavior; I'm certain I've been a bully, and while that's been tempered by a variety of things (internal and external), it's not an excuse, and not something I look fondly on. I definitely had all kinds of self-righteous justifications for it, and I'm not sure I won't be that way again, though it's unlikely.

    I'll guess the yeller in your post likely felt anger for not being the company featured, felt others didn't work as hard as he did and resented them for that, felt his team had let him down, and feared that all he worked for was now threatened in some way by losing market position. His behavior clearly sucked, but his feelings were legitimate, even if inaccurate gauges of reality.

    What seems clear to me is that the women, while heroic in looking for help, were not the ones who needed coaching.

  • Wavelength

    I think it's important to consider that the bully may be displaying a severe personality disorder that includes an absence of “conscience,” and may be unreachable by any presently known therapy or coaching technique.

    According to Martha Stout, in “The Sociopath Next Door,” roughly 4% of the US population is highly sociopathic. Other experts say the figure might be closer to 10% (along a spectrum), with highly psychopathic people representing 1% to 4%.

    Because these sorts of people may also demonstrate certain traits that we associate with leadership and entrepreneurship, I think the percentages are probably higher in upper level management and in start-ups, where the dysfunction may appear — for awhile — to be a “good” thing.

    While some bullies may be coachable, anyone who finds themselves in the position you describe should also consider whether they are really dealing with a pathological type, in which case, all the CYA in the world won't help. The pathological person may in fact eagerly look for opportunities to bully, rant, rage, and “fire at will.” And the most pathological don't need any excuse for that kind of bad behavior.

    The damage these people do is beyond calculation.

    • jerrycolonna

      I think you're right Wavelength. Does Martha Stout have any recommendations for dealing with sociopaths?

      • Wavelength

        “Run away.”

        Seriously, the disorder underlying this extreme type of behavior appears to come from a lack of “conscience” and a lack of empathy. In certain theories of development, empathy is a prerequisite for the development of a real conscience — because if I have empathy for you, I won't want to harm you, and therefore I will do the right thing, not out of fear of punishment or a desire to look good, but because I really care about not harming others.

        If the capacity for empathy, or “compassion,” really does not exist in a person with the extreme form of this disorder, then that creates a spiritual and metaphysical conundrum for me. But this appears to be true, according to a body of academic literature.

        The advice to “get away” from someone like this is about the best that's out there, since this sort of person is particularly resistant to change. But it's particularly difficult when you are already “in bed with them,” in business, as a co-worker or employer, as a founder or board member, or in a personal relationship, particularly when this describes a parent, sibling, or child.

        If we can't change this type of person, at least we can re-frame our responses to them if we understand that this type of pathology is real, and that their “crazy-making behavior” is outside of our control. We can stop thinking that a faster response to that “article in the NYTimes” would have actually made a difference. We can stop creating CYA memos, knowing that those ultimately won't help.

        In a metaphor, if we realize that this personality disorder is real, we can change up the prescription in the lenses we use to look at others in our lives. We might be looking at someone who is having a bad day, or who has had bad role models in the past who can re-think and re-learn to have a more positive style of interaction. Or, with this information, we may be better able to decide to “run away.”

        • jerrycolonna

          Kinda like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, eh? “Run away!”
          Wavelength, I really appreciate your contributions to the conversation. I think your point about compassion (either within the screaming bully or FOR the bully) is poignantly true. Yes.
          When I was writing the post, I was thinking of Pema Chodron's teachings about a saying from Shantideva (Buddhist “saint” and scholar)…he said something like “It's better to wrap your feet than to try and cover the world with leather.” Meaning, as you say, better to re-frame our responses to their “crazy-making.” But, as you note, doing so is particularly hard when the relationship with that person is fraught with issues (parent, child, sibling, spouse, boss, co-founder, et al).

          What would happen if one could, in the face of the bully, cultivate compassion? All the wisdom traditions with which I'm familiar teach that compassion is the right response to a bully. But they also teach: “Don't be an idiot and put up with abuse if you can help it.”

          Again, though, thanks for the wonderful contribution to the discussion.

          • Wavelengths

            In the fairly recent past, I had a work relationship with someone who demonstrated a pattern that made me very uncomfortable — charm, large ego, grandiose claims of dubious accomplishments, and unpredictable, and generally unprovoked, rages that would be terrifying to witness, but that would blow over just as suddenly as they appeared. And I saw the lies — small lies, big lies, over-the-top lies, sly misrepresentations, twisting and bending of the truth, and so on.

            I chose to take that road of compassion. I deliberately softened and lowered my voice when I faced any interaction with her. I used skills I learned about allowing the other person to “save face” whenever I needed to relay information that might have been interpreted as the tiniest bit critical. I held compassion in my heart. And I documented.

            I was in a difficult position — I needed the work this person offered, and I needed to be paid, which she said she would do “as soon as ________.” (Fill the blank with your choice of excuse.)

            I needed to believe that she was a troubled person who, underneath it all, really meant to do the right thing. I needed to believe that peer pressure from our mutual acquaintances and my economic value to her would keep her on the right track. I needed to believe . . . and I was in the perfect position to be exploited.

            No, compassion did not reach her. I have known several people like her, and when my suspicions started to rise, I wondered, just as you have, if I might have a better outcome if I could genuinely stay “in my heart” and hold the image of the highest and best outcome.

            I am not a clinician, but I was in conversation with a clinician as I was going through this experience, and I related some of what I saw. I believe that I saw her “dissociate” around her lies — as she fabricated a lie, it became her new reality and nothing would shake her from that new position. I don't think this is true with every person who is on the upper end of this spectrum, but I've seen it with several “specimens.” I think this is partly why therapy or coaching has little effect — they believe the false reality that they create. And so, when you or I try to get them to see something different, we may appear to them to be the “liar.”

            In “Monty Python & the Holy Grail,” remember the “witch”? The hapless young woman who had a carrot tied to her face? The high-functioning disordered person can target anyone, whip up a mob, and try the hapless victim for “witchcraft,” or “malfeasance,” or “poor job performance,” or . . . And the disordered person doesn't need a justification to go after a target.

            You cannot reason with someone whose motivations and mind do not follow the same patterns that most of us in society subscribe to. Even greed is not enough of a motivator to ensure that someone like this can be kept in line.

            But, Chrisdorr's story gives me hope. Not all bullies are this pathological. I will continue to live in compassion, but I will also be faster to head for the door when I see the signs.

          • jerrycolonna

            ” I will continue to live in compassion, but I will also be faster to head for the door when I see the signs.” Sounds like exactly the right strategy, Wavelength

  • Deb

    Great discussion – I've discovered the greatest bully I deal with is that one inside my head that gets some kind of sick pleasure out of trying to get me to doubt myself and pretend I don't know what I know deep inside …. esp. when what I know is that it's time to “run away”. .. wouldn't that save a lot of the bully's fun if we just didn't show up for the 'beating'?