Dealing with bullies

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Bullies in the work place are one of the principal reasons many people are unhappy with their work and one of the main reasons people leave their jobs. Bullying, however, is nothing new. Heck, they’re probably as old as humankind. I can imagine when homo sapiens started living in groups larger than the immediate family, there was a bully in every cave.

When I was a student back in the 50s and 60s, in a small East Texas town with a population of just over 700, and attending a school with approximately 100 students, we had in our grade 1 to grade 12 school two bullies. One was a boy and the other was a girl. They were cousins, and were the terror of the school, forever tormenting smaller kids, starting fights, and generally making nuisances of themselves. The thing I remember most clearly about them is they were specialists. The boy picked on boys and the girl picked on girls. Even back then people tended to specialize.

Back in those days, despite being tall for my age, I was a shy, skinny kid, with a preference for sitting in a corner reading a book over joining in the rough and tumble activities preferred by my classmates. Since I didn’t mix with crowds of kids during school hours, I seldom encountered the school bullies who preferred to do their thing for an audience. There wasn’t any joy in bullying someone if there was no one to watch.

That’s not to say, though, that I never had to deal with them, and that’s the theme of this article. By happenstance, I learned the most effective way to deal with a bully.

One day, I was assigned, along with three other students, to sweep the concrete steps of our newly constructed red-brick school that had replaced the dilapidated old wood frame structure. As we were just about finished, the bully decided to have some fun and entertain the other students who were hanging about the schoolyard waiting for recess to end. He began tormenting the smallest kid in our work crew, bringing the poor boy to tears. I was standing on the top of the steps with a large broom in hand, and when my little friend started crying, something snapped inside me. I hefted the broom like a baseball bat and yelled at the bully to ‘leave him alone!” Of course, that then drew his attention to me.

Like I said earlier, I was tall for my age, but as thin as a rail, while the bully, who had an inch in height and probably twenty pounds on me, had muscles from hefting bales of hay on local farms. You might think I’d just walked into the bear’s den and set myself up for a thrashing, but you’d be wrong. The bully took a look at the four-foot pole I had on my shoulder, and the snarl on my lips, and backed down. He slunk away like a beaten dog, and for the rest of my time in school never bothered me or my friends again. In fact, he even tried a week later to make friends with me.

What was the lesson I learned from this encounter? I learned that most bullies are really cowards, and when confronted will do what cowards do best – turn and run.

It took me a while to actually come to that conclusion. At the time I was just happy that I didn’t get pounded on.  I did finally figure it out, though, and it came in handy many years later when I was a young army major in Korea working for an army colonel who was a classic bully, and a totally lacking in empathy sociopath as well.

Near the end of my first year working for him he threatened to give me a bad performance review because I’d been selected to be the command briefer over him, which angered him. Hint: that’s not a legitimate excuse for a bad review. Recalling my previous encounter with a bully, I told him to try it, and I’d eat him alive. Not sure what I meant by it – it sounded good, though – and, it worked. He gave me a wide-eyed look, walked away, and when my rating arrived, I got highest marks from him.

And that’s how you handle bullies. – NWI