Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Productive Bully

When I conduct a two-year facilitation training, I devote one of the eight weekends to focusing on Challenging Personalities. I have developed a handout about this that I call the Meeting Menagerie: Personalities from A to Z. Under "B" I describe the Bully.

This is a fairly common type. Bullies tend to be loud and aggressive, hoping to achieve through bluster and volume what they may not succeed with through strength of ideas. They tend to thrive in environments with weak process agreements and unskilled facilitation.

Today I want to focus on a particular subset of this common type: the Productive Bully. This is a highly interesting case, where the loud and pushy person is also highly productive. When the bully is all Sturm und Drang and little action, dealing with them tends to be more straight forward (though not necessarily more pleasant). With the Productive Bully, there may be a real question about whether the group can function well without the Bully's considerable contributions and it muddies the waters about how best to proceed. I am particularly senstive to this type because for some, I am the Productive Bully.

(The irony here is that this personal liability translates into a professional asset. One of the ways in which I'm particularly prized as a process consultant is working with groups who have Productive Bullies among their membership. Based on my own group experience, I find it relatively easy to understand the dynamic and can simultaneously help the Bully find a way to examine their behavior with dignity, and help the group understand their options for engaging on the objectionable bahviors without vilifying the person.)

To be a Bully of any stripe, it means others are intimidated into being silent or acquiescing to what the Bully wants, swallowing (or at least understating) their reservations.This is dfferent than being bamboozled, where people are fooled or confused. With the Bully you know you don't like what's happening, but you don't know what to do about it, or are afraid to try. Typically, if you attempt to object to the Bully's tactics, you're likely to become the target of retributive attack. If it's unpleasant enough (and most attacks are), you'll hesitate to do it again—which only reinforces the Bully's power and encourage them to continue.

[Aside: Keep in mind that this is a highly simplistic overview, and I'm only working it from one end. Part of the dynamic may be that the label of Productive Bully is projected onto a person who exemplifies another Challenging Personality—the Victim. It can get very confusing understanding what's actually happening. However, for purposes of this exploration, I'll conveneiently lay aside that confusing element and assume that the label Productive Bully is being aptly applied.]

With the Productive Bully the calculus changes. There will be a tendency to put up with more guff in exchange for the Bully's substantive contributions. (A clever Bully may try to undercut criticism of their meeting behavior by asking why people are beating up on someone who contributes so much, attempting to deflect attention from their problematic social dynamics by shining the light on their exemplary productivity.) Sometimes the Productive Bully will believe that their output earns them a free pass on their roughshod meeting behavior—and if the group doesn't call them on it, you can understand how they've come to think that way.

There can be a lot of nuance here. Bullies weren't born yesterday; their behaviors have been shaped by years and years of interactions. They've learned that behavior as a way to exercise power. And in the case of the Productive Bully, it's quite possible that the power is being used in service to laudable goals (that is, in the group's best interest rather than in pursuit of personal advantage). Their story, typically, will be that they understand that others operate differently and that some in the group have trouble with their style, yet they nonetheless persist in their ways because of several positives (as seen through their eyes):

o It cuts through the crap and forces the group into action. The group otherwise tends to be wiishy washy and dithers in the presence of non-trivial disagreements about issues. Bullies will take the hit for the team. They will ask the tough questions and not shrink from the tension. They will grab the machete and start hacking through the jungle of confusion. Sure, people's feelings might get hurt, but at least we're through the hard part quickly and who's to say that going slower and discussing as a group which liana to cut, one by one, might not be more painful (it will certainly be more excruciating)?

o When they argue strongly for a position, Productive Bullies are willing to back it up with strong implementation. It's only appropriate that the people doing the lion's share of the work have more influence on the decision. Don't we care about high morale among the group? It's hard to get excited about implementing decisions you don't think are best.

o No shrinking violets, Productive Bullies bring their passion into the room, making for more lively conversations. You don't have to guess how they feel; they'll tell you. They're not asking others to get quiet, and
they can't be held responsible for the choice of others to be silent. Over a lifetime, they've learned that the quckest way to dispose of problems is through spirited debate. Asking them to moderate their bhavior is just about tantamount to muzzling them. Where is the commitment to everyone's voice being heard if they're not allowed to use their natural voice?

So what to do? While there are complicating subtleties in untangling the dynamics of the Productive Bully, there are compensating advantages. In general, with the Productive Bully you can count on their caring about the group, and it's relatvely easy to point out qualities about that person that you genuinely appreciate.

Let's take it step by step. If you're going to attempt a conversation with the Productive Bully about what's problematic with their behavior, it will occur in one of two ways: Case A—when the Bully is agitated; or Case B—when they aren't. It is crucial that you start with this assessment.

Let's take the simpler case first: Case B—when the Bully is not agitated. Assuming they've agreed to have a conversation to hear critical feedback about their behavior, I think you're much more likely to have a constructive experience if you can demonstrate to the Bully's satisfaction that you have a solid understanding about how they think about the group's well being and how their actions are based on good intentions. Further, you can make clear that you appreciate their many contributions as an implementor, even while objecting to some of their behaviors. You can appreciate that they bring their full self into the room, while objecting to how they tend to jump the stack, take up more than their share of the air space, and can intimidate others with the intensity of their advocacy.

The keys to keep in mind are explicitly affirming the Bully's good intent, and then making your criticisms concise, specific, and direct. Don't
say it three times, don't generalize, and don't sugar coat. Though I'm not guaranteeing this will succeed, I believe it will give you your best chance.

Now let's take the harder situation: Case A—where the Bully is agitated (which includes the possibility of the Bully starting the conversation not agitated and then becoming so mid-stream). This obviously is more volatile. It's not at all unusual for the Bully to get more difficult—and even abusive—when upset. In consequence, it is not unusual for people to be most motivated to object to the Bully's bahvior in that moment.

However, in my experience, there is almost no chance of success if you ask an upset person to reflect on their behavior prior to establishing to their satifaction that you understand what's going on for them in the moment. This means setting aside your reaction to their behavior long enough to show the upset person that you get what they're feeling and what the trigger was. This is not about agreeing with them; it's about validating their experience. It's about seeing them and creating a bridge to their experience. If there is no bridge, the ensuing communciation will be constrictive, not constructive.

Once this bridge has been established, then it's possible to proceed as outlined for Case B.

Depending on how distress manifests, it is not necessarily our instinct to first respond to an upset person with caring and understanding. in the instance of tears or fears, reaching out may be our first choice; with anger however, reaching out may not even occur to us as an option. With the Bully (productive or otherwise), upset commonly shows up in the form of anger and a raised voice. It can take considerable savvy and discipline for a group to respond to anger with empathy, yet it's rare for anything else to work.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that you simply swallow your reaction to the Bully's behavior. rather I'm trying to lay out a pathway to a constructive conversation about it that emphasizes everyone's basic humanity, and approaches accountability through connection rather than from outrage. The trick, of course, when all parties are dizzy with upset, is to find someone who is willing to get off the merry-go-round first.

The bad news is that this is hard to do. The good news is that it's nonetheless possible and at least there's some solid thinking available about when and how to do it. While dealing with Bully dynamics is no fun, can we afford not to try? To paraphrase Walt Kelly, "We have met the Bully and they is Us." Believe me, I know.

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