12/21 – The Unintentional Bully: An Autoethnographic Reflection on Leadership

December 2020 / Feature Articles

Michael Wicker

Michael Wicker

The pandemic and the subsequent isolation that so many have experienced has caused unprecedented interruptions in the lives of people. No more is this as true as it is in the working lives of people, people who may have been forced not only to live in isolation from most of the world but also to work in at least physical isolation from their coworkers and clientele.  

Certainly this is a negative and undesirable situation, but it is also a time that can be used to reflect, as leaders, on our own experiences both as those being led as well as those who lead others in some capacity. As leaders we should always work toward providing a working environment for employees that fosters care for both their professional and personal lives so that they will be better able to function as productive employees. At the very least, we should not treat employees, whether intentionally or not,  in such a way that they feel bullied and harassed by our actions. 

As we question what may become of our daily lives as we go through these lived experiences with a pandemic, the most important questions that we, as leaders, should ask may be questions that seek a critical look at who we are as leaders and how our relationships with employees or direct reports might have an impact upon them.   

What follows is the result of my own reflection as life as I knew it became interrupted and, to some degree, uncomfortable. My work situation did not change since I already worked from home, but the interruptions brought upon my family and the students with whom I work at my current position left a different and somewhat oppressive reality. No one has been immune to the changes (some of which may be permanent) wrought upon us by covid, but everyone deserves leadership who understands the impact that our decisions, actions, words, and approaches to leadership can have upon the already disrupted lives of those for whom we are responsible.    

This critical narrative did not begin as such. Instead, it began as a therapeutic reflection of my own lived experience with a certain bully who still haunts my memory. The reflection, however, morphed into something more profound. At the time I began writing my reflection, I was also dealing with similar feelings (perhaps the reason that reflections on my childhood bully seemed so relevant at the time), but this time those feelings revolved around a workplace scenario with what I came to realize was an equally traumatizing, though possibly unintentional, bully.

With that realization, my story became something more than just an attempt to narrate, perhaps narrate away, my anxieties but, rather, a reflection on my experiences with my own leaders and, ultimately, my own experience as a leader myself. More importantly, this critical approach to narrative (or autoethnography) led me to reflect on what I want to “become” as a leader.  

There are many terms associated with autoethnography. Personal narrative, critical narrative, heuristic inquiry, critical autobiography, and autobiographical research (among others) all fall under the umbrella term of autoethnography (Ellis & Bochner, 2000; Moustakas, 1990; Bochner, 2012). Under this broad meaning of autoethnography, I have chosen this particular methodology for this study.

Autoethnography as qualitative method, however, is not as methodologically grounded as other methods of inquiry. As McIilveen (2008) shows, autoethnographic inquiry posits that “it is the meaning of the story that is important, rather than conventions of scholarly production” (p. 4). They further note that “rhetoric and methodology are inextricably linked in autoethnography, because the method itself ultimately requires rhetorical expression in reporting” (McIilveen, 2008, p. 4). One will note, then, that there is a noticeable break in the standard features of a formal report.   

In response to Bochner’s (2012) question “shouldn’t there be a closer connection between our research texts and the lives they represent,” I will use this methodology to draw as close as a researcher is able to my subject, which is, in this case, my own lived experiences. Interspersed throughout these narratives are observations of the experiences along with any pertinent literature and conclusions.

I have attempted to keep the narratives as they were originally written.  However, as this began as a stream of consciousness endeavor, I did not originally pay close attention to punctuation, sentence structures, or general mechanics. With that in mind, I did attempt to correct any grammatical and structural/mechanical problems that existed in the original narrative and observations. I also added sources and further observations where appropriate and available to ground the observations in the pertinent literature. 

One should note, however, that I did not want to change the order of this stream of consciousness narrative any more than was necessary, so the narratives and the observations upon them may come across as a bit messy or disjointed at times, although this is to be expected in such research endeavors (Lambotte & Meunier, 2013).     

Narratives, Observations, and Literature      

I miss my grandparents and lately more than ever. I still sit at the desk where once I pretended to be an important business man, signing papers and whisking away fictional employees whose ghostly presences held up my progress in making the widget factory (or whatever the business was) the best it could possibly be.

How many pieces of paper, spiral notebooks, pieces of cardboard did I waste in my pretend game of corporate intrigue (before I ever knew what those words meant)? But Pa and Ma (the endearing names for my grandparents) didn’t mind. I scribbled endlessly at that desk. It was all rubbish, indiscriminate drivel, but it took me away.

I was bullied as a child (not unusual for many children) but never did I feel like I wanted to take my own life like some kids in recent years have done. I learned to take the poking and prodding in stride, to tell myself that their words like “fatso” were as unreal as my imaginary employees, to let it happen so it could be over with.

But going to my grandparents’ house was the place of safety, the place where I was in control even if it was only in the ephemeral world of my imagination, a world that ended when I had to go to school. Their back bedroom was an executive office. Their desk, now mine, was grand and big and important. Their bedroom windows may have been 30th floor windows in my boyish imagination. I imagined that I could look down on a sprawling city where the bullies were smaller than ants and as easily crushed under foot.

But those moments ended when the school bell rang. I learned to laugh with them when they punched me in my stomach and called me whatever pejorative name fit their fancy that day. Perhaps joining in the “fun” would make it less traumatic. That didn’t really work. 

Still, to this day, that uneasy noncommittal chuckle still involuntarily erupts from my throat whenever I’m faced with a similar bully, one whose methods, though, by degrees, are much more sophisticated, are nevertheless as hurtful.

My most memorable bully was named Scott. He was a 14-year-old who took a special interest in the 7-year-old me. He was big for his age or at least seemed so. He towered over me and my friends and took special delight in his show of power by demanding that I sit down in the middle of the school yard or lunch room or wherever he felt compelled to make his demand. I did it and I chuckled along as if I were in on the joke.  

Where my other bullies resorted to physical displays of their power, Scott only implied it, and, though his demand was simple, my compliance to the demand was on display for everyone to see. In those moments, I had a choice: willingly comply or suffer what I imagined to be a brutal display that would eventually cause me to submit anyway. I chose to play along.   

Every Christmas I delight in watching the classic Christmas movie simply called A Christmas Story. Like Ralphie, I had my own Scott Farkus and the fact that his name, too, was Scott allowed me to identify with Ralphie that much more. Although TBS certainly runs the movie into the ground with its 24 hour marathons, I could watch the scene where the bully is beaten senseless by the victim over and over again. That never gets old. Unfortunately, I would never be able to identify with Ralphie in that regard. I never gathered enough courage or chutzpah or whatever word one might use to define Ralphie’s unrelenting attack on his bully.   

My Scott only implied physical harm when he hovered over me and told me to “sit down” in the middle of the school yard and in front of all the other school children on the playground. I couldn’t hold the uneasy chuckle back despite my efforts and I complied with Scott’s humiliating orders. After all, he hovered over me. He possessed the power.

I still sit at that very same desk that once sat in the back bedroom of my grandparents house but in a different office, my office. I don’t have employees now (although I have had direct reports in the past), but I do have clients. I also have a different kind of bully. These bullies don’t physically hover over me, but their voices, always the center of attention, ensure that others are silenced. After all, one can’t be professional and interrupt someone else. I tend to sit and listen, keep my microphone on mute, and chuckle silently to myself (just in case I forgot to hit the mute button). And sometimes I wonder if I am, at times, the bully. The fear of that only serves to silence me even more. Maybe I’m my own bully. Maybe the internal critic is telling me just that: “‘sit down’ in front of your colleagues and keep your mouth shut.” I have to chuckle at that one.     

The uneasy chuckle never stopped the bully. It only served as a temporary salve for my soul, but a salve that has no real healing powers. It’s a placebo of sorts, a placebo that still helps me to psychologically cope (or so I think). It’s a learned response, and I can’t help but wonder if I have taught that same thing to others, to my students, to those I’ve supervised, or even to my own children.  

Today I hide behind jokes and attempts to make people laugh. I rarely have much of substance to say because the bullies in my mind still hover over me. I imagine that they are waiting just behind the next corner, that they might be disguised as friends (a technique so often used by bullies to draw in their victims). The internal critic does just that. He poses as a friend who is looking out for my best interests. I’ve had leaders who have done that as well. They express their concerns about me, concerns that they may even think are truly in my best interests. But their efforts so often serve to silence my ambition if not my voice.  

I once had a leader who I approached with the possibility of my career advancement. Instead of encouragement, this leader, a leader who had never really taken the time to get to know me, to know what motivates me, to understand how I organize myself or deal with daily life, began sharing his “concerns” about whether I would be organized enough to be a leader in our organization or if I really understood what the pressures of leadership would entail. In other words, this leader told me, at least metaphorically, to sit down, shut up, and listen.  

If I had had the chance to express myself, I might have mentioned that I had once served as the director of a writing center at a mid-sized university, that I had either directly or indirectly supervised and trained over a hundred different staff members in the leadership responsibilities that I had held in other positions, that I had even managed somehow to get a doctorate in educational leadership. Of course, the internal critic crept up and told me to be quiet, to just let it happen. After all, this leader held the power. I really had none. I was at the mercy of the unintentional bully. As Hollis (2015) noted, a power dynamic in which the manager/leader holds the balance of power can lead to feelings of defenselessness.

Such actions were not isolated, and this is an important distinction when it comes to workplace bullying even if it is unintentional. According to Einarsen et al. (2003), bullying behaviors must  “occur repeatedly and regularly (e.g. weekly) and over a period of time…” to be considered as such (p. 15). Certainly, this was true of my experience with this particular manager.  

From our first meeting, his approach was distinctly deficit-based, concentrating almost exclusively on my perceived weaknesses and failures as opposed to any strengths that I might bring to the team. I say perceived because the manager never allowed me the opportunity to participate in dialogue about myself. Rather, he made assumptions. I left each meeting feeling helpless, hopeless, and worthless. Even when he paid me a compliment, there was still a negative rejoinder. Once, for instance, this manager complimented me on something, but then said, “we still have a lot to work on.” Once again, the internal critic raised its voice, telling me that I was still worthless as a member of this particular team, that I was “less than.”

To be fair, though, it isn’t necessarily just bullies who fall into the deficit-based model of leadership. As several studies have shown, it is much easier to recall the negative events, experiences, and observations than it is to recall the positive (Van Woerkom & Kroon, 2020). However, as Van Woerkom and Koon (2020) have postulated, when deficit-based feedback is used to evaluate an employee’s performance, the employee will question his or her worth to the organization and this will often lead to an employee entering a self-protective mode of thinking (Green et al., 2017) or, as Hollis (2015) puts it, such behaviors on the part of supervisors, managers, or professed leaders “make defending self the priority over organizational objectives” (p. 3). It can also lead to the cessation of any “meaningful communication” (Vessey, DeMarco, & DiFazio, 2011, p. 134). Employees perform better when they feel safe, secure, and cared for.

In relation to my experience with this manager, I would call this a fight or flight response. I either needed to fight, which would likely have had severe consequences for my future with the company and reflect badly on any future employment prospects (even if I attempted to “fight” in a respectful and professional manner), or I would need to flee to some other employer or department within the organization. However, even fleeing would lend itself to the possibility that I would only flee to a worse situation than that I had experienced before. To put this into the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, should I “bear those ills [I] have…[or] fly to others that [I] know not of” (Shakespeare, 2012/1603, 3.1.89-90)? Either way, I was between a rock and a hard place.       

I think that there exists (and I am sometimes one of them) unwitting bullies. Their intentions are not to harm, but they nevertheless do. Their actions are never overt, and I often suspect unintentional, but nevertheless hurt the same, nevertheless elicit that same chuckle.

Such bully behavior is insidious because it so often isn’t in what the bully says or does. Such obvious behaviors and words are not good looks for organizations who talk the talk of inclusiveness, of diversity, of equality. Nor is it great for the evangelists of such a doctrine: colleges and universities. No organization, even colleges and universities, is immune to workplace bullies (Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996; Hoel & Cooper, 2000; Zapf et al., 2003), and, as my experience with the manager that I mentioned earlier as well as with other supervisors, managers, and leaders who I have experienced in my academic career has shown me, this is as true and rampant as ever even in academic settings.

Unfortunately, leadership that relies on bullying does more harm to an organization than it does good, and it can be costly as employees struggle to be productive (Hollis, 2015). However, the cost is not just financial but it can also take an emotional and health-related toll on employees who suffer through bullying behaviors on the part of their leadership (Hollis, 2015). 

Silences toward others can often be as hurtful as words, and silencing others by not inviting them to the table of discussion, by not providing opportunities for certain people to flourish while, at the same time, noticeably promoting and giving voice to others, is as hurtful as outright behaviors. In fact, it may be more so (Tanesini, 2016).

When bullying is apparent, there is hope. There is hope that the actions of these bullies will be noticed, that someone will have the moral clarity and fiber to act on behalf of the victims who may feel powerless. However, when the bullying happens under the radar and in the silos of departmental culture, there is little hope.

Still, this is often unintentional. We all have the capacity to get so caught up in our own lives, careers, whatever work-related issues may face us at the moment. It is just easier to listen to the stronger voices, the ones who always have something to say, who have an opinion about everything, who aren’t afraid to interrupt to have themselves heard. It’s just easier, as leaders, to listen to these voices in those moments and forget to ask the others for their opinions.

I’ve been in situations recently where I’ve felt that I uselessly wave my arms in the faces of my leaders only to be ignored. I genuinely feel that they aren’t purposefully ignoring me, but, still, there it is. When I meet with them, they do most of the talking. I mostly sit and chuckle.

By contrast, I’ve also had leaders (one in particular) in recent days who were interested in what I had to say. They wouldn’t let my own willful silences or insecurities relegate me to the corners of the metaphorical room. They weren’t afraid to subject us both to moments of uncomfortable silence, leaving it to me to break them. They were all about business, too, but the business at the moment was me, and that invitation to speak in safety brought back those moments in my grandparents’ back bedroom, except this time it didn’t have to be imaginary.

I’ve been a leader and, in some ways, still feel that I am a leader in some capacity. I’ve learned a lot about leadership from observing not only the good things that my leaders bring to the table, but their failures as well.

I find it hard to imagine that any leader desires to fail with direct reports. Even the most transactional leader who cares little personally for their employees understands that they still have to motivate staff on some level. They still need their staff to function if only as tools for the leader’s success.

The best, though, transform the culture through care, understanding, and developing a supportive culture, and, while doing so, transform the lives of their employees (Atwijuka & Caldwell, 2017; Khan, 2001; McAllister & Bigley, 2002; Kroth & Keeler, 2009; Louis & Murphy, 2017). All of them. That’s a tall order because, as Tomkins and Simpson (2015) suggest, caring leadership may mean that one has to be willing to throw out the notion of “best practices” (as if there is a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership) so that they can meet direct reports where and in the way that will best produce the best results for and in the individual employee (see also Jenlink, 2006; Grint, 2010).

As a result, such leaders understand the absolute necessity for critical self-reflection. They recognize that human nature can often lead us to treat employees negatively in less than overt ways, ways that silence these employees rather than empower them. They do not want to put the organizational culture at risk by ignoring their overlooked actions, or inactions, which could lead to serious pathologies within the organization. As a result, they look inside themselves and aren’t afraid to do so. 

Paulo Freire’s words ring true when he says that all of us are “…unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality” (Freire, 2005, p. 84). Transformational leaders understand that, whether they realize it or not, their very presence in the organization, transforms on some level (bad or good) the organizational culture. They also realize that they, like all of us, are always “becoming,” and they aren’t willing to risk that they will turn into a bully, even the inadvertent kind.

Effective leadership must begin with the disposition of the bricoleur, which entails a willingness to pull from several different techniques of leadership to meet the needs of their direct reports and the organization in general (Jenlink, 2006; Grint, 2010). 

As one might suspect, I am sensitive to bullying behavior, but that doesn’t make me immune to becoming one as a leader or even as a colleague. There are no magical antibodies that develop just because one has been exposed to and experienced bullying whether in his personal life or professional life. We all have the potential to become something we really don’t expect or overtly intend to become.

This narrative and critical reflection have caused me to consider who I am “becoming” as a leader. There is no doubt that I will fail with some, but I hope to minimize those times by becoming a leader who does not live under the illusion of “best practices” when it comes to dealing with direct reports.  As Tomkins and Simpson (2015) have posited, leadership “involves tolerance of complexity and ambivalence; a rich sense of temporal trajectory; concern for one’s presence in the world; and crucially, the ability to resist the soothing normativity of ‘best practice’.”

As a leader, I must be willing to reject the idea that I should approach each employee with a one-size-fits-all notion of leadership whether that notion of leadership falls under the normative terms of transactional, authentic, servant, transformational, or even transformative, but, rather, should do the work of a bricoleur who is willing to use whatever means, or in this case theory, of leadership that is available and that will produce the best possible outcome for both the employee and the organization itself. Most of all, though, I need to be sure that my words, actions, and approaches to leadership do not lead to the perception that I am the bully (whether intentional or unintentional).

Still, even as I write these final words and clear my throat, I can feel that little uneasy chuckle waiting in the wings of my mind, trying to escape. Who knows, as I hit the submit button, it may just make its appearance. 


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About the Author

Michael Wicker is a faculty member of the Western Governors University Writing Center. He has also served as an English composition instructor, director of a university writing center, and coordinator for a college student success center.  He has a bachelor of arts degree in history and English, a master of interdisciplinary studies degree in history, English, and secondary education, and a doctorate in educational leadership from Stephen F. Austin State University.  He lives in Nacogdoches, Texas with his wife, Monique, and their three sons:  Nathan, Colton, and Carter. 

2 thoughts on “12/21 – The Unintentional Bully: An Autoethnographic Reflection on Leadership

  1. Pierre GOIRAND

    Mickael, thank you for your article

    the subject of bullying in the workplace is very important
    I have suffered from bullying as well and it leaves an indelible mark – and shows up in uncanny way in the context of adult life.
    I appreciate the difficult exercise of detailing one’s own experience – it takes accepting to show oneself as “weak” which in our heroic star leadership culture is rarely welcomed – bravo
    You’ve also tried to show ways in which you can replicate bullying behaviors. which is crucial as we know from the study of abuse and addiction that perpetrators often have been victims.
    I am French, and in French we have a word for the victim “le souffre douleur” literally, he who suffers the pain. But we do not have a name to the perpetrator, no name for the bully. Which makes it hard to write an article on the subject.
    when we have no word we have a problem; but when we use a word beyond it’s scope we also create a problem.
    In this respect, your article leaves me confused as you do not give any definition of what do you mean by bullying. You then tend to include Under this umbrella all sorts of behaviors such as criticism, lack of support, lack of interest, lack of care… this is not bullying. the scope become too large and diffused.
    In my view all actions or ways to interact that makes someone feel bad, not considered and even disrespected are not necessarily bullying. Can there be a pattern of the victim to tend to see bullies and bullying everywhere ?
    Bullying is not a one time occurence, it is a behavioral pattern, it is a trait of personality. Your use the term of “unintentional bullying” – but you do not define it either – is there such a thing ? It does not resonate with me. The bully always chooses his victims. Can you imagine a bully saying , “ooh I am sorry, did I bully you ? it was unintentional, really I am sorry, I didn’t mean to , I apologize….” – (I wonder as I write this if this way to express critcism, will fall under your label of unintentional bullying ?)
    By being so broad, you miss aspects of bullying that from my point of view and experience are essential : such as the intention to make the other feel bad, the sadistic inclination, the pleasure of humiliation, the tactics, the importance of recurrence, the servitude; the internalization of shame…
    I would very much welcome a study of bullying in the workplace and/or in relation to leadership that would limit itself to bullying per se.
    If you know of any please let me know – and maybe you will be the one writing it.
    Thank you very much for opening the conversation


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