Our culture is obsessed with bullying. Bullying in school. Bullying in sports. Bullying in entertainment. Bullying in the workplace. That’s all well and good when the term has a clear definition and is identified correctly. The problem is, that’s rarely the case, especially in business. And I’m not sure if it’s actually helping the cause.
Business guru Tom Peters sparked a vigorous Twitter debate the other day by equating the term “bully” to “straightshooter [sic].”
As I was thinking about “all this,” it occurred that “straightshooter” is a synonym for “bully.”
— Tom Peters (@tom_peters) August 5, 2018
His point, if I’ve interpreted his tweets correctly, is that those who identify as straight shooters at work often lean toward the bullying end of the spectrum. I don’t know if that’s true or not, nor does anyone else, for that matter. And therein lies the rub.
Conflating those terms is highly subjective. Their definitions, however, are not. I don’t care how well-meaning your intent, you don’t just get to dial in whatever meaning suits you, especially when you’re as widely read as Peters and that meaning may very well end up getting attached to real people in real companies. Personally, I think it’s irresponsible.
According to Google’s online dictionary, incidentally, a “straight shooter” is “an honest and forthright person,” while a “bully” is “a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.” Clearly the two terms are not synonyms. And even if they do sometimes describe the same individual, they are not necessarily related.
In case you’re wondering, in my not-inconsiderable workplace experience straight shooters are those who, like the definition, say what they genuinely believe, knowing full well that it may be wrong. In other words, their opinions are not influenced by other’s expectations or the prospect of personal gain. That is so not a bully.
This is not simply semantics but a troubling trend of equating anyone who even temporarily exhibits a trait that our overly sensitive and politically correct culture deems overly aggressive, assholish or simply not-likable to bullying. Now we can add “straight forward” to that ever-growing list of ways we’re not supposed to behave.
Meanwhile, if we did away with every entrepreneur or executive who is sometimes overly-demanding or short-tempered there would be no Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook or Amazon, which just happen to be America’s most valuable corporations, not to mention companies that have immeasurably impacted all of our lives.
When Indra Nooyi was tapped to be CEO of PepsiCo in 2006 she asked Steve Jobs for advice. The famously brutal Apple CEO said, “Don’t be too nice.” She later recounted his advice to students at Stanford, “When you really don’t get what you want and you really believe that’s the right thing for the company, it’s OK to throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around. People will talk about it, and they’ll know it’s important for you.” She called that “a valuable lesson.”
Maybe that’s not exactly the same as using power to intimidate underlings either, but then, that’s exactly the point. Once you start labeling anyone who acts a certain way – a straight shooter, for example – a bully and acting on that mischaracterization it’s a slippery slope.
It’s worth noting that Stanford biz school prof Bob Sutton probably started us down this path with his book “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace …” Has the workplace become more civilized since the book was published more than a decade ago? I have no idea but I seriously doubt it.
The trouble in my view is this notion of hanging permanent labels on individuals who may or may not have exhibited some trait or another. Labels are clumsy generalizations of often transient human behavior. On the other hand they do make highly tweetable sound bites.
Consider this: Nobody is perfect. Said another way, everyone is an asshole sometimes.
To paraphrase something a famously wise and yet imperfect man once said, let he who is without sin (or has never been an asshole, a bully, or a mischaracterized straight shooter, for that matter) cast the first stone. As we’ve seen over and over lately — particularly with the #metoo movement — the loudest protestors are often the biggest offenders.
Image credit Terry Freedman via Flickr