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Part 2: Breaking the Cycle of Unkind Leadership

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

In this second part of this two part series, you'll learn what you can do right now to break the cycle of unkind leadership. Even though it might seem like an insurmountable and impossible challenge, it isn't. It's doable and each of us can (and need to) play our part.


Part 2: Breaking the cycle starts with one small, kind action...


Years ago I worked as a customer service representative. It was my first experience working in corporate America. Every week we had an office-wide staff meeting in which the leaders would tell us all the reasons that the work we were doing wasn't good enough. Then they would threaten to fire us. Each week they didn't though, because, as they would say, we weren't "good enough" to be hired anywhere else...so they would "do us a favor" and keep us at our jobs.


Maybe you are thinking to yourself, "Karyn, you must be kidding...you are exaggerating...no organization works like that. It's just too unkind." I wish I was exaggerating. But I'm not. And because I had never worked for a large organization before, I just thought it was normal. The way it was supposed to be.


Maybe you've had similar experiences. I know some people who have only had this experience of leadership. And it goes beyond being unkind. It's bullying behavior created by the Cycle of Fear I explained in Part 1 of this series.


What's the difference between unkindness and bullying and why is it important?


To understand the difference, and why it's so important, let's start with the definition of kindness that I created for The Kind Leader: "Kindness is an action (or set of actions), connecting a person's internal feelings of empathy and compassion to others that is undertaken with the purpose of generating a positive effect and outcome for another." (p. 6)


Bullying is the opposite and more: Its an action or set of actions deliberately undertaken to cause physical, emotional or psychological harm to a person in a relationship in which there is a perceived imbalanced of power. That imbalance of power could be physical…someone bigger or stronger…and it can also be psychological … a leader in “power” over team members…


Just like the leaders at the organization that I worked for. And like a lot of bullying behavior, it happened over and over again. And it had a terrible, detrimental effect on the mental health of those of us who experienced it, to the morale in the office and it spilled over into our home lives.


Why did the people who worked there stay? Why did we put up with it? Because we thought it was normal, and because, like many people who experience bullying at work, at school, at home or in the community, we were afraid to speak up and say something. And we were afraid to leave. We believed what our leaders told us: that we weren't worthy, and that we would never be hired by anyone else.


And because we didn't have formal leadership titles, we didn't think there was anything we could do to break there cycle.


But there is.


Stand up, speak up and tell someone what is happening. That is the kind thing to do.


During the same time period that I was working in that organization, my family experienced a hate crime. Some students in my son's school left a voicemail with a Nazi death threat on our answering machine. My first reaction was to erase the voicemail and pretend the incident didn't happen. To hide it from family and friends. After all, it was embarrassing that the whole thing happened. Even though I was the victim (just as I as at work), I couldn't help think to myself "If I was different, maybe this wouldn't be happening". And that's exactly what bullies want to happen. They want to shift the problem to the victim. To make the victim feel worthless, weak and powerless.


In the end, I didn't stay silent. Instead, I went to each of our neighbor's homes, knocked on the door, told them what was happening and asked them to watch my house. And I called the police.


Taking action made me realize that just like when I was bullied in grade school, standing up, speaking out and telling someone what was happening both stopped the bully and their behavior (the police caught up with the culprits) and it broke the cycle of fear that I was living under.


So, if you are experiencing bullying by leaders at work, at school at home or in the community, here are some steps small, kind steps that you can take to stand up and speak up for yourself and others:

  1. Pay attention and be aware. Make unconscious patterns of leadership behavior conscious. Think about what leadership systems and myths that you grew up with that could be playing out in your organization. Things like "might is right", "survival of the fittest", "nice guys finish last", even "majority rules" all contribute to bullying behaviors.

  2. Speak up when you are wearing your Follower Hat and see and/or experience bullying behaviors (like a leader berating a team member for a missed deadline or mistake, or a team member being 'sarcastically or jokingly' threatened by a leader). Tell your team members, tell your family members. Call the anonymous hotline at work (I did it when I saw bullying behavior in another organization). It may be difficult, but you will ultimately feel less scared then if you keep silent.

  3. When you are wearing your Leader Hat and you see or hear bullying in your organization, call it out. Don't be silent, because that silence means acceptance and gives permission for the behavior to continue.

  4. Don't blame the victim. As a leader and a follower, it may feel safer to think to yourself that it's the victim's fault (if only they weren't different, or have a different skin color or sexual orientation...) but it's not. Eventually you will be bullied too. The vicious cycle of fear will keep repeating.

  5. Check in frequently. When you are wearing your Leader Hat, check in with team members in all parts of your organization to look for bullying and unkind behavior. Put a stop to it when you see it...and then model the kind behaviors that you expect of everyone in your organization.



No one has to tolerate bullying anywhere. At any time. Not at work, not at home, and not in the community. We just need to understand the vicious cycle of fear that unkind leadership creates and disrupt the cycle by standing up and speaking up. For others and for ourselves.


I can break the cycle. You can break the cycle. And we can start right now.

 

For more ideas on how to break the cycle of unkind leadership and lead with kindness to create cultures of trust and belonging, please read The Kind Leader: A Practical Guide to Eliminating Fear, Creating and Trust and Leading Kindness.


If you have questions about how to deal with unkind leaders and need help, please reach out: karyn@kindleadership.org




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