The other day, I found myself in my favourite stationery store just around the corner from where I live, and at the counter there was a lady talking with the owner. She was glowing in pride because that evening, she was about to visit a very important and rich person, and she wanted to buy them a gift. Clearly intimidated by this person’s social status, she was unable to think of an appropriate gift, and she needed help from the store owner who is a shy but witty man.

She asked: “What can one buy as a gift to someone who has everything?”. You could clearly see the yearning for one day becoming herslef a person who has everything.

The stationery store owner replied: “Nobody has everything. A person who doesn’t need anything is a dead person.”

In addition to a Fabriano paper block, included in the price, I’ve got this piece of wisdom that stayed with me for long after.

We all need something. There is no level of achievment or stage in life when we have everything. And as long as we need something, we can be targets of bullying. Nobody is above it.

At the start of this blog I promised uncomfortable topics, and bullying is unfortunately a very frequent part of the experience of a founder. Much more likely than I could have ever imagined. It’s everywhere. I’ve seen it around me, and it happened to me. Several times.

At first I was in denial, and I did everything to convince myself it wasn’t happening to me too. Now, after years of experience, I can spot some of the thinking patterns that reveal to me that I am being bullied. I don’t have any scientific findings to share with you, but I want to share my experience because it is in silence that bullying thrives.

Bullying is a form of aggressive pressure or intimidation. It has three main characteristics (sourced from dictionaries and legal texts):

  • It is inappropriate,
  • It is repetitive (not a one-off insult),
  • The result, or at least the main purpose of it, is to cause harm to the target person in form of prolonged emotional distress or physical or psychological harm.

It starts with something you want (or something you have and you want to keep). As I wrote in Negotiation, something you want gives someone else a leverage. Negotiations can get very uncomfortable, especially when the other person has stronger leverage and clumsy communication skills. You are sometimes simply in a weak position and need to cede to someone with stronger leverage.

Because our first instinct when being bullied is denial, our mind tries to disguise it under something else. We are easily tempted to say “Nah,..it’s just negotiation, they are trying to get <something they want>”.

There is an easy way to distinguish uncomfortable negotiation from bullying:

  • The purpose of an uncomfortable negotiation for the other person is to get something they want;
  • The purpose of bullying is to cause physical or psychological harm.

In an uncomfortable negotiation, you can give the other what they want and avoid physical or emotional harm. In bullying, even if you give them what they seem to  want, you’ll still endure physical or psychological harm.

In fact, by the time you ask yourself the question “Am I being bullied?” it is quite likely that the physical or psychological harm has already been endured and that it is too late to even try identifying what is it that the other wants and giving it to them.

An uncomfortable negotiation may lead you to disappointment, and very quickly you’ll move on, go build yourself better leverage and negotiate new deals. Bullying will have you stuck and fixated on the other person and on the relationship with them, on what you can do, on what you should have done etc. You’ll have the impression there is no way out and you’ll give priority to that situation in your mind.

Here are some of the thoughts my mind goes to when I am being bullied.

About the (inappropriate) behaviour:

  • It’s a cultural difference. I am too soft and this behaviour that I find inappropriate is normal in business (on the culture of the other person). I should just man-up,

About the physical or emotional harm:

  • In my line of work, the physical or psychological harm that the other person is trying to make me endure is normal,
  • Excellence requires sacrifices, and this physical or psychological harm is just one of those sacrifices.

About what I want:

  • I should have never wanted it,
  • The physical or psychological harm, is maybe a fair price to pay for what I want (Faustian dilemma).

About myself:

  • Something about who I am, or my situation, provoked the other to behave the way they are behaving,
  • This doesn’t happen to others. I attract this kind of psychopaths,
  • I can outsmart the bully.

About others:

  • If I tell someone about it, people will think I am weak or unworthy of being treated any better.
  • People think this inappropriate behaviour is normal, and will side with the other if I told them about my problem. I’ll be excluded.
  • If I tell someone about it, it will ruin my relationship with that person (fear of disconnection).

You certainly had at least one of those thoughts in your life and it might shock you to learn that none of those beliefs can ever be true. Because bullying is not about who you are, what you wanted or what you did, but about who the other person is (a bully). Other people also suffer (and many of them are aware that they are often being bullied). Having a career, excelling and what you do, is not a deal with the devil and you should not be having the Faustian dilemma. And finally, if there is a cultural difference between you and a toxic culture, it’s not you who should be adapting.

Our mind generates all of these beliefs only as a result of shame. Bullies are shame vampires. They are on this insatiable quest for connection that they think they are unworthy of and they want to bite their victims to infest them with shame and turn them to bullies too, forcing them into connection.

Scientists who study shame claim that there are no circumstances that justify infusing another person with shame. Even if the person did something terribly wrong, shaming them or even humiliating them is only likely to result in them doing something even worse.

The appropriate response to shame is empathy. Through my experience with bullies, I found that they don’t respond to empathy as I expected. They often don’t believe that my empathy is genuine. One explanation for this is probably that they believe themselves unworthy of empathy. Another possible explanation can be found in the trauma research:

If you lack a deep memory of feeling loved and safe, the receptors in the brain that respond to human kindness may simply fail to develop. ~ Bessel van der Kolk

Whenever I managed to stop a bully, it was by actually reinforcing their sense of indignity and showing them that with me they can only get more indignity and less connection. I know it’s unethical and it doesn’t always work. It a bitter acknowledgment, but most of us are simply underqualified to even interact with bullies.

For a long time, I did my best not to be curious about the psychology of bullies and ignore all of the obvious questions: how does one become a bully, and what to do when you encounter one. I regret it. Even if you are not directly involved, being a bystander affects you. Researchers claim that the attitude of bystanders is a key factor allowing bullying and harassment to thrive. Even if you haven’t read any of the research on the topic, deep down you know it — if you just stand by and do nothing, it will end up affecting you.

I now think every child should go into society with a what-to-do-when-you-encounter-a-bully manual. The risk is not only being a victim, but also becoming a bully yourself or living with the bystander guilt. Nobody deserves that.

The saddest thing I’ve learned when looking into what psychologists have found, is that the person who strips you of your dignity is very likely to first have convinced themselves that they deserved their indignity. It seems that we treat others the way we treat ourselves.

According to research, it seems likely that bullying is associated with lower emotional intelligence. Improved emotional intelligence is also what helps one rise above it and repel it more successfully.

When I started my career as a startup founder, I’ve got an advice from a retired, very successful, businessman, who told me that emotion had no place in business. The last decade of experience thought me that there is nothing more toxic that such a belief.

Business is all about emotion.

I would love to tell you that after a decade of experience I have a magic recipe to share with you, so when adversity comes nocking at your door you can just apply a few tricks, attitudes, techniques and make it go away.

I would love to say that to myself. Because over the course of my first decade of work as a founder, horrible things have happened to me. I would love to say that what I’ve learned has taught me enough to feel ready for whatever comes my way.

What I’ve learned is in fact the opposite: whatever precautions you took, however hard you worked to avoid problems, and whatever you learned, you’ll be caught off guard.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions, but it means that you get to live with acceptance of everything that you don't control. I’ve found forgiveness to be a powerful tool for navigating an environment where you don’t control the outcome.

When I started exploring the idea of forgiveness, the first thing that surprised me was that I couldn’t give a definition of what forgiveness was. I looked in academic literature and I’ve found several academic sources that quote the following definition by Oprah Winfrey. I don’t expect, in my life, to find a better definition. It explains the concept by giving you a recipe on how to practice it.

Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different.
Accept what has happened. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. Accept the now. That is the recipe to begin healing. — Oprah Winfrey

Normalizing bullying

Can we really normalize bullying? Do we even want to, or do we want to continue just wishing it didn’t exist?

We are fortunate to live in a time when it became OK to talk about bullying. It happens a lot, in different forms, to many people. It probably happened to you too. Since bullying is quite connected to shame, talking about it is already a first step that takes away part of its power.

Another step is listening. Not being an indifferent bystander. Not being the know-it-all, let-me-tell-you, I-have-advice-for-everything kind of listener, but actually listening. Then being curious about what you can do.

Learning to tolerate the discomfort of the very idea of bullying and its omnipresence is a first step towards a powerful response to it.

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