Go Get ‘Em, Tiger: We’re All Bullies, Sometimes

(This was originally published at WomenofHR.com, an amazing group website for HR practioners and experts. Check out the site. And then bookmark it or add it to your RSS feed. You’ll be glad you did.)
All the sad news lately about bullying in schools reminds me of the  Tiger Oil memos.  Of course, workplace bullying didn’t go away in the 70s, but I think this is a great case study. Bullying is, unfortunately, timeless.

Tiger Mike’s memos were, uhm, memorable. Do yourself a favor on click on over if you haven’t seen them already. These directives, full of threats, hyperbole, and cuss words were his best attempt at “make it happen” leadership. They may not have actually worked, or maybe his strategy was wrong, because Tiger Oil went bankrupt in the 80s.   But he could sure get his point across – with flare! And drama! And some action, damn it!

When the Tiger Oil memos were published in Houston, many of his old staff wrote in to talk about what a great guy Mike was.  They saw him as ahead of his time. He brought in free lunch from a fancy deli every day, paid women fairly,  and offered flex time after all. One said, “It was a great place to work and everyone had lot’s (sic) of fun wondering what Tiger was going to do next. He really was good-hearted and treated his employees well.”

The thing is, Tiger Mike most likely didn’t see himself as a bully at all.  He most likely would have been shocked by the play his memos are getting now. Pugilistic and direct, maybe, but what entrepreneur doesn’t have to fight to get what they want? He truly believed that writing these memos were a good use of his time.  He apparently saw himself as the misunderstood victim of his powerful staff, who took his money but didn’t always do what he wanted. He was  lost in feeling outnumbered and powerless – most likely with no concept that he was contributing to the problem.

We’re no better than Tiger Mike, really. We just usually have better filters. We’re all stressed these days, trying to do everything perfectly, or reach too many goals in too few hours. We have moments when we feel isolated, one-down, unpowerful, or without voice, so we pound on the table. Or say something catty. Or pull a harmless prank.  And in doing so, we get attention, and that mollifies for a moment.

But the fact is, when we give in to the snarky comment, yell, undercut, or use our positions to harm others, we lose. Because we’re telling the world that we feel insecure, have failed in our leadership, and that we are weak. We give away our power when we act out of feeling powerless. And we look like bullies even though we’d never apply that term to ourselves.

So what is there to do?

  • Recognize when you’re feeling powerless, outnumbered, one-down.
  • Connect with your power. This may be through talking to a friend, thinking about recent successes, or just flat getting out of the situation where you feel victimized for a minute or two to recollect yourself.
  • Recognize that nobody’s perfect, including you (and me).  Then try to extend the same empathy you have for yourself back to the person you were about to snark on, yell at, or prank.
  • Speak up when you see someone trying to get their way through fear,  sarcasm, or intemperate display of emotion.
You’ll mess up sometimes. I have many times, and will again.  But keep working at it. Don’t give away your effectiveness through a comment you can’t take back, a tone that turns heads, a prank that goes wrong.

You’re bigger than that.

In showing self-control, empathy, and courage, you show how truly powerful you really are. You set an example for your coworkers and kids that may help end some of the tragic stories we’re hearing these days. Or at least keep your memos off the internet in thirty years. 

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