BULLY: Learning From Tragedy

I’ve just seen the film ‘BULLY’, which follows the lives of five young people who experience bullying. Of the children in the film, one was seventeen year old Tyler Long, who committed suicide on October 17 2009. The documentary provides a compelling insight into the dynamics of bullying in the school yard and on the school bus. The film has been so powerful that it has now been viewed by over one million parents, kids, educators and advocates. Everyone should see it, but a word of warning, its contents are graphic and disturbing. 

A particularly shocking revelation, following Tyler’s death, was that several of his fellow students had come to school with nooses around their necks. What distances a person from the impact of their behaviour, to the extent that even the death of a peer does not wake them up to the fact that it’s no longer a joke?

Adolescence is a time when fitting in is a high priority. I imagine that peer pressure and internalised peer pressures to maintain group cohesion make it more difficult to respond to a sense of doubt or guilt about one’s behaviours.

However, it’s not just adolescents who are capable of such callousness. In Australia, a young mother, Christine Hodder, suicided after being relentlessly bullied from the time of her appointment to a regional ambulance station. Once again, you would think that would be enough to change the attitude of those who contributed to bullying Christine however, her replacement was subjected to similar treatment. When it became known that the replacement worker had grown up in the same area as Christine, he came to work to find a toy monkey suspended from a rope above his desk. How are we to make sense of this sort of behaviour?

Neuropsychologist Ian Robertson argues that cognitive dissonance, may have something to do with it. Once we are involved in a particular behaviour, whether it is bullying or another form of unethical behaviour, we can struggle to acknowledge that what we have done is wrong. Instead we revise history to come up with a version of events that is consistent with the self-image we wish to maintain. Often we convince ourselves that we have been the victim of the entire scenario.

And it’s not just our own direct actions that implicate us, but our failure to act. Several managers have reported to me that they struggle to remain objective about grievances against staff they supervise. They report that such complaints raise doubts about their own efficacy as a manager. Minimising complaints avoids such internal tension and doubt. Many managers unconsciously neglect their managerial and legal responsibilities in an effort to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Robertson suggests our involvement in behaviours we would usually regard as morally wrong start with a small act. Once we’re implicated, we reduce our cognitive dissonance by convincing ourselves of the legitimacy of our actions. One small act leads to the next and so on.

Most of us are capable of bullying behaviour. If you think you’re immune, let me ask: When was the last time a call centre worker bore the brunt of your frustration? The odds were probably higher if they had an accent or came from another country. Many teams and groups find their identity by pitting their strength and will against an ’other’; another team, another country or another individual.

When I first entered the cinema there was a woman sitting two rows behind me who remonstrated loudly that the school her daughter attended had informed her that she was experiencing anger management problems. She was outraged by the suggestion. When the film ended she was notably silent.

So who keeps us honest? How are indiscretions picked up early and addressed? How do we cut through the collusion that results in mobbing in schoolyards and workplaces?

One of the most powerful ways to prevent bullying is through bystander intervention, by stepping in and saying that’s not O.K. The challenge for each of us to recognise, name and take action to ensure that bullying - our own and others - stops. We need to build cultures in which bullying is not 'cool'.

I understand that in workplaces it can be difficult to break ranks with our colleagues to question their behaviour. When a culture of bullying is entrenched, we risk becoming ostracised ourselves. Furthermore, if the bully is our boss, we tend to be less likely to speak up for fear of subtle and not-so-subtle retribution. However, if strong cultures are in place from the outset, it is unlikely that things will go unchecked long enough to turn into major problems. If those small acts of disrespectful communication are nipped in the bud, a toxic culture can be averted. It’s about catching it early and consistently.

The documentary BULLY has culminated in the Bully Project; a grassroots movement to stop bullying. It has engaged young people and others, empowering them to find their voice, to stop the tragic consequences of bullying. I just want to say a big congratulations to everyone involved!!

Check out BULLY, it’s a film that will make you think.

Reflections:

When have you experienced behaviour in the workplace or classroom that left you feeling uncomfortable?

What action did you take?

What empowered you to do so?

What prevented you?

What would equip you to intervene in future?

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