Spotting Bullies at Work

Narendra Modi as Authoritarian Bully

As a kid, I learned the value of spotting the bullies on my elementary school playground. One bully liked to sit on kids, squashing them with his weight. Another bully wore cowboy boots and, boy, did it hurt if he managed to kick you in the shins. But how about at work: assuming nobody is physically assaulting anybody else, could bullying be playing a role in destroying productivity and morale? How might you nip that in the bud, if you find it? The answer would require knowing what to look for, emotionally speaking.

The surest signs, I believe, consist of a larger-than-usual volume of a pair of emotions, often shown in tandem: anger and disgust. I came to that conclusion by studying world leaders for my book Two Cheers for Democracy. Analyzing the facial expressions of world leaders and correlating the results to how Freedom House ranked the degree of “civic openness” in countries across the globe, I asked the question: which emotions most reliably signal a tendency toward being a dictator—a bully–instead of being democratically inclined? The answer is anger and disgust, along with a relative absence of happiness. A case in point is India’s prime minister Narendra Modi. Note on the Time magazine cover how his upper lip is flared in disgust, while his eyes are narrowed and lips are pressed together in anger. Recently, Modi sought to have the country’s Supreme Court require the media to publish only his government’s official accounts of how the covid-19 pandemic is impacting India. While the Supreme Court didn’t rule in favor of that demand, media stories about the Modi government’s “inspiring and positive” efforts on this crisis are increasingly all that can be found, as harassment of “naysayers” builds in severity.

In holding a private counseling session with an office bully, remember that anger revolves around a desire for control, to have matters unfold in a manner of that person’s choosing. Disgust, in turn, can signal that a bully finds someone else’s ideas revolting (and a revolt against the bully’s own preferences). Wherever their presence exists, what additional emotion does anger and disgust tend to develop in others? The answer is fear, as people freeze because nobody dares to move on their own accord. Regrettably, that reaction can allow would-be dictators to orchestrate the outcomes they alone want. There is, however, an antidote to the most destructive qualities of anger and disgust. Find a gentle way to “drop” into your conversation with a bully the fact that research indicates the value of happiness. Genuine happiness, as opposed to official happy talk, can lead to superior solutions arrived at more quickly, when we all stay open to brainstorming better options.