Value Systems : My Dinner with a Bully
Mark Goulston is Senior Vice President of Emotional Intelligence at Sherwood Partners, a Palo Alto, California-based turnaround and growth consulting firm.
Author of 'Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior', Goulston is also a professor at UCLA. In his work, he helps leaders and teams quickly recognize, accept, correct, and learn from mistakes.
Coming face to face with an overbearing, win-at-all-costs blowhard can take courage. Recognizing those characteristics in yourself can take even more.
"The world is a dangerous place, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who won't do anything about it" Albert Einstein
Deep within the heart of many men is the fear that they lack courage - and that they wouldn't step in the way of a bullet meant for their wife or children. They hope they will, but they aren't sure. They aren't confident. And it bothers them because a man who lacks courage isn't a man.
Many men feel this way. I have felt this way. After my first child was born, I attempted to change this. I'm still a work in progress.
"The one thing I am most happy about right now is that I don't work for you," I said emphatically.
"What?" replied my dinner appointment in surprise. Let's call this 43-year-old CEO of a rapidly growing company Frank. We had just met. And Frank had just made a condescending, sexually demeaning comment to our waitress at the famed Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Our waitress could only smile back at him uncomfortably and then glance at me, as if to ask "Who's your creepy friend?" Frank's arrogance clearly exceeded his considerable smartness. And his action pushed me to keep a commitment I'd made to myself after receiving life-saving surgery: the commitment to not allow such people into my life.
"Yeah, I wouldn't want to work for you because I would be deathly afraid to tell you if I made a mistake and because you have a capacity for contempt that crosses over into abuse," I said. "When my undiscovered mistake causes you to have to explain a mess to the board of directors, what are you going to do, blame it on a little person like me? I don't think so. After all, the company is your responsibility, isn't it? Life is just too short to put up with crap from a bully like you."
His jaw dropped. Looking at me incredulously, he said, "Nobody has ever talked to me that way."
"Well, maybe it takes one to know one," I said. "But more importantly, is it true?"
"It's all true. It cost me a marriage, a relationship with my kids, and a job," Frank confessed. Then he leaned forward and, as if he didn't want anyone to hear, whispered, "Is it curable?"
I replied without missing a beat. "It's an addiction; the best you can be is a bully in recovery," I said. "You have to work on it every day or else you'll slide back. But it's probably worth it, because at the end of your life you'll be less bitter and have more friends, and people won't have to lie at your funeral to come up with nice things to say about you. You'll accomplish more than you thought possible."
He laughed. "Can you help me?"
I pondered that for a moment. "I'm trying to figure out whether you're a bully to your core. If you delight in beating up on people, especially those who can't fight back like our waitress here, then I won't help you," I said. "That's because you have already taken from life more than you deserve. And furthermore, I would help anyone who has to deal with you to beat you. If, however, you act like a bully because it gets things done and you don't know any better, then there is some wiggle room. I might work with you."
"Which one am I?" he asked.
"Well, if I'm going to be your shrink - your coach - I get to ask the questions. Which one do you think you are?"
"I am very driven and goal oriented. I was on my cell phone after an angioplasty seven months ago," Frank explained. "But I don't think the bully bit works for me anymore, so maybe it's time for a change."
"Right answer, wrong reason," I replied, "You should change because it is wrong to abuse people, especially those below you -- not because it doesn't work tactically anymore. But you have earned the right to my meeting with you once more after this dinner. You're on probation."
"Done," Frank agreed emphatically. "How soon can we start?"
We met the next week. I was not optimistic. I expected him to show up but not really be committed to changing. To check that out, the first thing I asked when he sat down in my office was: "What did you learn from our dinner?"
"That I may or may not be a bully," he answered, trying to be the dutiful, cooperative client.
"Close, but still wrong," I said. "You're so smart everywhere else, it's tough to figure why you're so dense here. We both know that you are very much a bully, we just don't know whether you want to change."
"Geez, you don't give a guy a break, do you?"
"Sound like anyone you know?"
"This is where you're screwed up!" he blasted back, showing his true colors. "I give everyone a chance, but when they mess up and then worse, try to cover it up, that's when I go off on them. You're being the jerk now. I should have known better than waste my time with a shrink. I've spent tens of thousands on you useless guys sending my wife and loser kids to you. And they're still not any better."
"You're right. Being glib like that was inappropriate and wrong. I'm sorry," I replied contritely.
"Too late. I must have had too many drinks at the Polo Lounge when I thought you could help me."
"I might have had one too many myself to think I could help you," I pushed back.
"Oh, screw it. I made the time on my calendar for this. Let's just move on and do it," he said in a self-serving semblance of graciousness.
"Not yet. I made an accidental glib remark, probably because I was having performance anxiety about seeing you, and then you reamed me verbally," I asserted. "That was a bit of overkill, I'd say, so I think you now owe me an apology."
"I said, 'Let's just move on,' didn't I?"
"You certainly did. Here's your lesson for today: You do regret, but you don't do remorse," I said. "You need to work on that."
"What's the difference?" he asked.
"Regret is where you admit wrongdoing and say, 'It won't happen again' and then say, 'Can't we just move on?' like you just said to me. Remorse is where you look deeply into the eyes of the person you beat up, see the damage you did, let them see that you accept responsibility for it, and then say, 'I did that. I was wrong. I'm sorry.' No excuses, no explanations, no defenses."
"Oh," he responded, a quick study even when exploring brand new territory.
I felt a little more optimistic before Frank came in the following week, but I still wasn't convinced he wanted to change. When he arrived for the next meeting, he seemed more enthusiastic. "What have you learned and done so far?" I asked.
"I've learned how much of a bully I've been, how much I need to change, and how much I want to change. I've also learned that I didn't know the difference between regret and remorse, but I do now," he responded mournfully, but happily.
"What happened?" I asked.
"I met with my 20-year-old drug-using, in-and-out-of-rehab, college-dropout son and told him I was sorry and wrong for going off on him for everything he did wrong. I told him I was sorry and wrong for almost never saying anything positive to him for what he did right - and for driving him to the point of not caring anymore," Frank admitted, his eyes watering.
"What did your son say?" I asked.
Frank's eyes reddened with tears. "He looked at me and started to cry. Then he said, barely audible, 'I'm sorry for all the times I wished you were dead and all the times I tried to kill myself because I didn't see any way out.' I asked him why he didn't tell me it was so horrible. My son looked straight through me and said, 'You didn't want to know.'' You know, he was right."
"You're incredibly goal and task oriented and tune out anything or anyone that gets in the way," I said. "That's why you're so successful at work and such a failure at life - and why you're seeing me. Isn't that true?"
"You're right," he said pulling himself together.
"Here's your lesson for today: To reach goals, you have to keep control; to reach people , you have to give it up. See you next week."
When you're dealing with a person who won't do the right thing, words alone rarely have an impact. Doing the wrong thing is an action, not a statement. In the story above, it became rapidly clear that Frank wouldn't have listened to words. It was only when I threatened not to see him (something he was smart enough to know he needed) if he turned out to be a bully through and through that he really took notice.
Usable Insight: "Confront evil at the earliest opportunity." - Walter Dunn
This article formed the fifth part of a five part series by Mark Goulston, originally published in Fast Company earlier in 2004. The other four articles are available to read within the Value Systems section of the LeaderValues website.
Ó Copyright Mark Goulston 2004