In any organization — and it only takes two people to make an organization — you’ll be exposed to some kind of bad behavior from time to time. This is true in all kinds of settings: at school, work, or the dinner table; with family, friends, colleagues, competitors, or acquaintances. Examples I’ve seen recently among groups of teens, neighbors, and between supervisors and subordinates triggered my thoughts about this — and we won’t even discuss the political arena or the world stage.
Bad behavior includes everything from belittling humor, snubbing, and power plays to bullying, shaming, and outright legally defined harassment.
The Organizational Path
Rules, policies, and guidelines will never be enough to prevent or correct bad behavior. We usually depend on organizational culture to manage the tension between the varieties of human feelings, needs, and reactions and the way they’re played out in public. A combination of common practice and formal enforcement enables cultures to teach their members what’s acceptable and what’s not, whether on the spot or after the fact.
But even culture is not strong enough by itself. It relies on individual activism to make its principles real.
You know when you’re in the presence of bad behavior and when speech or actions are hurtful or inappropriate. You know because you suddenly feel queasy or cautious or hot and angry.
But if you’re too uncomfortable to take steps yourself, you’ll probably have lingering feelings of shame and guilt. You’ll know that something should have been done, even though you couldn’t think of what it was or you felt awkward about leaping into the middle of something for fear you’d make it worse.
Here’s the thing: It’s never effective to assume that someone else, someone who is more knowledgeable, astute, seasoned, or authoritative will actually handle the situation. And you can do it! You can do it!
When You Have to Go It Alone
There are many possible styles and approaches you can take, depending on your personality and the situation.
Certainly, almost anyone can say the equivalent of, “Nick, that’s not necessary — now, what were we saying before?” and change the subject back to something topical and relevant.
If you’re feeling courageous and committed enough, you might be willing to talk to the perpetrator after the fact and ask why s/he behaved this way, or consult with other members of the group on why they appeared to tolerate the behavior.
You may not completely eliminate the behavior you’ve challenged or convert a bully or narcissist into a respectful, responsible participant. But going on record at least reduces the likelihood that people will exhibit bad behavior around you, which makes wherever you are a safer and more desirable place to be.
No matter what your formal organizational role is, being willing and able to challenge bad behavior where it strikes makes you an organizational leader.
Onward and upward,