What Happens When Bystanders Allow Bullying?

by Jul 21, 2012

The other day I was headed to my lunch appointment in a high rise building. In order to get to the restaurant on the 40th floor, I had to wait in line for one of the elevators that stopped only on floors 21 through 40 to arrive. I spoke with my associate as I waited, hungry, and slightly annoyed just like everyone else around that we’d had to wait this long.

As we stood there, a man with something like crazy wild-eyes came pushing through, his assistant in tow. He pushed his way through the crowd until he’d pushed clear through to the other side, almost gasping for air has he realized we were all waiting for the same thing: the 21st-40th floor elevator. He then made what seemed to be a subtle but very clear classic-temper-tantrum-foot-stomp. It was just one, but I swear I saw it.

The elevator finally arrived and as the doors opened, “Crazy Guy”, as my associate and I had so cleverly named him, stood leaning forward slightly with one hand on his hip, and the other waving his assistant through the crowd to cut in and hop on and be sure they made it on this particular elevator ride. The next one was clearly just too long of a wait for wherever they were headed (hopefully not to the same place I was) and whatever business they were attending to. It must have been so very important for him to act this way.

As so often occurs on these particular trips to the restaurant on the 40th floor, no one got off until floor 40 was reached. Crazy Guy, because he’d been so eager to get on the elevator, had overshot and managed to push his way all the way through the crowd to the very back corner of the elevator. Now, that we were all getting off to put our names in for a table near the window, Crazy Guy found himself at the back of the line.

As we waited for the party of three in front of us to finish their personal business with the hostess, we heard cries from behind us. It was Crazy Guy, commenting on the long wait to someone he was standing near. His assistant stood there quietly by his side, while my associate and I gave each other a look that said, “I hope we don’t have to sit near him!”

Over lunch my associate and I mocked Crazy Guy for his seemingly ridiculous behavior, and after a couple of good laughs, we realized that what we’d really been doing is calling this man a bully. The man never said a word to either of us, and the only talking we did hear was muffled angry comments coming from the back of a line. How then, did we know he was a bully?

We knew because of his body language. He leaned forward slightly during that entire interaction. When he caught you looking at him, he glared right through you, his eyes fixed upon yours as if he was going to take your soul (hence the granting of the name “Crazy Guy”). He pushed through the crowd of people as if he had the right to, and as if we should know better than to get in his way.

The most interesting part of the whole scenario? We let him act that way. All of us did. We all let him bully us. No one said anything to him. No one asked him to apologize for pushing. No one told him to pipe down while we waited. No one pushed him back.

I propose that if someone had asked him for an “excuse me,” that person would have eliminated him or herself as a target of the bully antics. If someone had glared back at him, instead of diverting their eyes to the floor as so many of us did, that person would have easily become exempt from the soul-stealing stare the rest of the elevator ride. If someone had told him “It’s not that bad, just be patient,” while we were in line at the hostess stand, they would have become void to the irrational commentary.

Give it a try…

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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