Pure and simple, politics of any form is about power. Bullying—from verbal abuse and demeaning commentary to sexual advances—is a power play, enacted to diminish others, to strip them of their power and reduce the value of their work. The effect is compounded, though, in our nation’s capital where spin doctors and the political operative class are [remove is/replace with are] trained from the earliest stages of their careers to change narratives and advance stories to put their employers and themselves in the best light and frame binary choices: take down your opponents and you win.
Both men and women share culpability for a historical problem in politics of using words to diminish and dismissing inconvenient accusations. There was a time when sexual misconduct was pervasive in Washington D.C., because it was pervasive everywhere. And while men dominate the news of late for the worst reasons, manipulative behavior is a co-ed sport. Nightly television and digital campaigns are dominated with commentary that allows the political class to paint opponents in the most negative light instead of recognizing the validity of another’s argument. We no longer negotiate anything to a mutually beneficial “Yes.” Everything is a zero-sum game.
As in Washington, the most political of operatives thrive in the corporate sector, too, from Wall Street to Hollywood. Although we are in an era of politicians and moguls at last being held accountable for their behavior, bullying and abuse—whether verbal or sexual—will never fully disappear. But the paradigm is shifting at a dizzying pace. Whereas individuals who found themselves at odds with a politically motivated boss had long recognized that peers who tied their professional success to such a superior were less inclined to rock the boat, today’s culture is one of awareness. Organizations are implementing and emphasizing training programs that empower employees to identify problematic situations in safe environments that will lead to resolutions. Newly created or emphasized internal support, in tandem with consequences for bad behavior and rewards for good, will eventually lead to cultural changes in work environments.
Until those changes arrive, however, both women and men must do their best to counter bullies and the negative narrative they try to write. How?
- Build the narrative that defines how you want to be known. Speak with facts. Document not only the abusive situation but also be diligent in reporting the successes you achieve in your role. You are doing good work. Show it. Work with a coach or a mentor to best quantify the results you have brought about. Positive results, not the internal challenges of a current job, are what you take with you to future jobs.
- Recognize you have no margin for error. As difficult as the situation is, control your reactions. The moment you lose your temper, talk publicly about the abuser, or show emotional distress, you have given them tools to use against you.
- Take the high road. Be prepared to walk away if you can afford to do so but seed your own narrative and stick to your story. Recognize you may never get the vindication you desire but build a cohort of successful individuals who become your team. Let them provide the background on why you left your previous job as well as take advantage of their wisdom and emotional support.
- Know that the higher up the ladder you go, the more important the team around you becomes. Manage both up and down. Be the person who helps the younger men and women as they move forward. Not only will you feel positively about your legacy but you will continue to build a mutually beneficial loyalty and group ownership of success. For those at the top of organizations, walk the floors and engage frankly and openly with staff at all levels. Welcome insights that might enhance leadership styles.
- Define yourself by the positive changes you have made in society, business, and in the lives of others. Make your story not about you but about the lives you have touched.
I have adopted a habit that has come to define how I manage life’s challenges. If I have a bad day, I try to do one good thing for another person before I go to sleep that night. It might be as simple as forwarding a job opening to a friend who is looking for a new opportunity, checking on a friend who is ill, or making a small donation to a needy cause. As we are in the midst of the holiday season, I also like to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a heartwarming reminder of the good Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, has done every day of his life.
You may have never taken stock of how your actions have impacted the lives of others. Take some time to do just that. Realize, too, that you may never know how your actions benefit another. But let positive engagement be your guiding light. It will drive your success. Refuse to accept the unacceptable and be the colleague who helps and supports others. You may help an angel earn his wings as you quietly change the world.