October 30, 2012

Bully, Brute or Jerk: The importance of language

I recently attended a 4 day training seminar led by Dr. Laura Crawshaw of the Boss Whispering Institute. Dr. Crawshaw works with what she calls "Abrasive Leaders" and has developed a focused coaching approach for helping companies and individuals who are struggling with difficult management situations.

One notable issue  raised during the course of the training was the importance of language, and specifically why Dr. Crawshaw does not use the term "bully" when referring to these leaders.  Interesting.

It is true, there are psychopaths, bullies, narcissists and obnoxious people in the workplace, and, unfortunately, some are in high places (e.g. the executive ranks). However, it is also true that many people who exhibit controlling, berating and unprofessional behavior are not criminals or psychopaths; many are not even "jerks" but basically well-liked people behaving badly at work.  They may be acting this way because of learned behavior patterns, pressure on the job, a lack of insight and/or because their behavior has been rewarded over time.  In other words, they may not fully understand the impact of their actions.

Why are these linguistic distinctions important?  Primarily because how we intervene in these situations will depend upon how we define the problem.  A psychopath will not respond to behavioral coaching; a person with a serious psychiatric problem may require psychiatric treatment.  A real bully may need to be fired.  An "Abrasive Leader" may be someone who, when confronted with the negative perceptions that coworkers have of his or her behavior,  is motivated and able to turn that behavior around. Probably not without help,  but through  appropriate measures such as good management strategies and mentoring or coaching.

Language does matter.  It influences how we interpret the world and, therefore, how we choose to act.

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