Bullying: 3 Principles of Victim-Centered Intervention for Leaders

From Columbine High School to Amanda Todd, recent decades have seen a renewed spotlight placed on the ancient human problem of bullying, or the systematic abuse of power. These and countless other tragedies have animated a new public resolve to confront bullying behaviour at its cultural roots, challenging the normalcy of interpersonal oppression in communities, schools, and places of work. Yet even amid the public outcry, tangible solutions are scarcely heard. Despite our best efforts at prevention, even the most effective leaders and administrators will always have the anxiety-producing task of intervening in bullying incidents. So how do we use our leadership to promote courage and justice for all parties?

Any successful intervention strategy must somehow include all of those involved in, and affected by, the problem. We need to develop the skills to have powerful conversations that make a difference, and strategies for what to do when conversation is not enough. What if our efforts began with the target or victim of the bullying? If justice is about repairing harm, what better place to start than with the person harmed? Here are a few principles to keep in mind as we encounter the target of bullying:

Be a Companion, Not a Saviour: Supporting the target in moving toward emotional and physical safety is the first priority once a bullying situation is identified. Remember: Bullying always involves an imbalance of power in some form. While it is important act quickly in putting a stop to the pattern of abuse, try to avoid the temptation to take control of the situation away from target. Instead, the role of the leader is to support and empower the target, while to the extent possible they steer a course toward greater security and confidence. Swooping in to the rescue can fail to empower the target, and in fact can actually reinforce perceptions of the target’s own weakness. Validate the experience of the target and use open-ended questions to help them think through a response to the bullying, rather than jumping to advice. Pose suggests with real curiosity as to whether they will work in the case at hand. Let them know they are not alone and that you and others will be taking steps as well to respond.

Build Webs of Support: Bullying happens when targets are isolated from a sense of belonging and community (or peer) support. That’s why most bullying prevention is about working toward greater group cohesion, acceptance and a responsible community. But when bullying occurs despite our efforts, we need immediate and specific intervention strategies. Leaders can identify bystanders to the bullying who have both the confidence and courage to interrupt the bullying, and the popularity or ‘social capital’ not to suffer socially for their outspokenness. If properly identified (for example, peers who have the respect of the bully), these bystanders can be engaged in a coaching conversation with the goal of empowering them to step in. Over time, the positive self-identity that comes with helping interrupt bullying can take on a life of its own, even affecting the way a group perceives what is normal and accepted. More often than not, when a peer steps in the bullying will stop within 10 seconds – but the positive ripple effects of that moment can last much longer.

Respect Everyone: Showing respect for the target of bullying means empathic listening, attending to their needs for safety, validation, connection and hope. Showing respect for the person bullying means attending to their needs, and drawing clear boundaries around acceptable behaviour without shaming, stigmatizing or dehumanizing the person. Punishment (the deliberate infliction of pain) and social exclusion are not only unproven means of stopping bullying – these approaches may in fact contribute to the problem by fueling a sense of victimhood, defensiveness and self-righteousness on the part of the bully. What bullies often lack is the experience of strong relationships of attachment with positive adult role-models. Leaders can begin to provide this for them, by balancing clear limits with unconditional support in ways that will ultimately help bullies change their behavior and repair the harm to victims. . By seeing and believing in the humanity of all involved, humanity and justice begins to be restored to the crisis

As we are confronted by bullying situations, let’s avoid the trap of either reacting with vengeance or getting stuck in permissive inaction. The wise leader knows that interpersonal and group crisis represents an opportunity to firmly demonstrate the values of the organization, define one’s leadership, and learn from the problem to build stronger and healthier relationships and organizations.

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