Tag Archives: bully

when “calling out” is bullying

A student in one of my classes raised her hand to say something about 20 minutes into a university class guest-lecture I was doing, then smugly told me she didn’t like my use of the words target and setting my sights on something, because these were “references based in violence” (her words).

I didn’t feel like it was a moment of enlightenment for me, nor that she was trying to be helpful; I felt like it was a moment to humiliate and to control. It felt belittling. And I admit that, later, I oh-so-smugly chastised her over her own use of the phrase rule of thumb, a phrase she didn’t realize is tied to an excuse for spousal abuse that can be traced as far back as 1782.

I can be petty. It’s true.

As I noted in a blog called Have I offended?, this and other incidents prompted me to put a slide called modus operandi at the beginning of all of my presentations. I tell the group there are no stupid questions, that I welcome all questions though I might not have all the answers and will freely admit such, etc. And I also ask for no GOTCHA moments, where an attendee immediately becomes outraged at something I’ve said. I ask that, if anyone hears me say something that he or she thinks is offensive to please raise a hand and ask me to clarify, or to take me aside at a break and ask for clarification. I love training and teaching, and if there is an obstacle to my overall message getting out because of something I’ve said, or a perception of what I’ve said, I want that obstacle addressed post haste. So far, it’s been a good strategy: it’s cut down significantly on these gotcha moments where there’s very little learning and listening – but there’s a lot of efforts to control, and often, at least a bit of humiliation.

This all came to mind as I read this outstanding essay, What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic, by Asam Ahmad. It’s from 2015. From the essay:

Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others. People can be called out for statements and actions that are sexist, racist, ableist, and the list goes on… In the context of call-out culture, it is easy to forget that the individual we are calling out is a human being, and that different human beings in different social locations will be receptive to different strategies for learning and growing. For instance, most call-outs I have witnessed immediately render anyone who has committed a perceived wrong as an outsider to the community. One action becomes a reason to pass judgment on someone’s entire being… It isn’t an exaggeration to say that there is a mild totalitarian undercurrent not just in call-out culture but also in how progressive communities police and define the bounds of who’s in and who’s out. More often than not, this boundary is constructed through the use of appropriate language and terminology – a language and terminology that are forever shifting and almost impossible to keep up with. In such a context, it is impossible not to fail at least some of the time.

I actually teared up as I read this. I so want to connect with my audience, or with other people at a community meeting, or my neighbors, on a human level, and for all of us to be able to treat each other with respect and openness. But sometimes, I’ve felt shut down by call-out culture, by people playing gotcha, and I haven’t felt like they were trying to be helpful or educational – I’ve felt like they were trying to humiliate me, to silence me. I love Ahmad’s assertion that “There are ways of calling people out that are compassionate and creative, and that recognize the whole individual instead of viewing them simply as representations of the systems from which they benefit. Paying attention to these other contexts will mean refusing to unleash all of our very real trauma onto the psyches of those we imagine represent the systems that oppress us.”

Ahmad cites Ngọc Loan Trần’s earlier essay to explain this further, and it’s also excellent at explaining how “calling out” can turn into shutting discussion down and shutting certain people out of a discussion altogether.

This isn’t AT ALL to say someone shouldn’t call out threatening, harassing, abusive, oppressive, dangerous and/or illegal behavior. Absolutely: call that out! It isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be debates about what is and isn’t appropriate to say – English is a living language, culture is evolving, and there’s no reason to fight against it, to not be a part of it. Sadly, there will be those that will claim anyone saying that calling out can sometimes be used as a tool for bullying is just an effort to stop people from calling out threatening, harassing, abusive, oppressive, dangerous and/or illegal behavior. I’ve already had two people say just that when I shared a link to Asam Ahmad’s essay on social media, and I’ll expect it now as I share this blog.

Particularly when working with cultures very different from my own, and working abroad, I’ve heard words and phrases that I felt were inappropriate, even hurtful, but sometimes – NOT always, but sometimes – I also know the words might be open to interpretation in terms of meaning, motivation and intent, and I need to ask for clarification to make sure I’m understanding the speaker’s intent. And sometimes, asking the speaker some questions, getting clarification and even saying, “When you say that, here’s what I hear…” is a more effective strategy to elicit a change in mindset than immediately branding someone as racist, sexist, etc. And sometimes, the person doubles down and they really are a racist, sexist, etc. – and now, I’m sure, and it’s going to be very hard for them, later, to claim it’s not what they meant.

One way of addressing with compassion an issue someone has for what he or she perceives as inappropriate words or actions is “calling in”, which means speaking privately with the individual, addressing the word or behavior without making a more public spectacle of the address itself. I have appreciated this very much when it’s been done with me, when someone tells me, privately, that this or that word or phrase may be offensive to some people and why that is. Sometimes I agree with them and alter my language. And sometimes I don’t. But I always appreciate outreach that comes from a place of sincerity and care, not gotcha.

Also see:

The volunteer as bully = the toxic volunteer

This blog was originally posted 16 August 2010.

So many people — media and corporate people in particular — like to talk about volunteers in the most flowery language possible: volunteers as selfless and hard-working and nice and sweet and huggable. Gosh golly, don’t you love them?!?

I’m not fond of using fuzzy language to talk about volunteers, because I find it degrading and disrespectful. It devalues volunteers and their role in organizations.

While in Australia leading workshops on volunteer management earlier this year, one of the very hot-topics that volunteer managers wanted to talk about was volunteers as bullies. So many were facing a toxic volunteer at their organizations who used abusive language with other volunteers, paid staff and even clients, disrupted meetings and plans that other volunteers were leading or organizing, and were uncooperative regarding following policies and procedures. These toxic volunteers were capable of bringing meetings, planning, events, and even entire programs to a halt.

The volunteer managers felt powerless to deal with the bullies, because these volunteers had often been at the organization longer than the volunteer managers had, because the volunteers were also financial donors, because the volunteers had been honored in the past regarding their service, or because the staff was afraid of the volunteers and didn’t want to provoke them further. Volunteer managers told me that just one volunteer complaint — including complaints about being reprimanded for not following policy —  would result in senior leadership displeasure with the volunteer manager. One person said that her supervisor, in regards to complaints by a long-time volunteer who did not want to follow policy, “I just don’t want to hear it. Make her happy.”

One avoidance tactic upper management uses regarding bullies is to require everyone to go into a conflict management workshop. Those workshops can be really great for other issues, but don’t solve the problem of a bully. In fact, volunteer managers report to me that bullies either come up with a way to beg off attending such or are brilliant at hijacking such workshops, portraying themselves as victims and using the tactics they learn at the workshop to divert responsibility from themselves regarding bullying behavior. And I have to admit that I’ve seen it happen myself.

Since those workshops in Australia, I’ve kept my eye out for good resources regarding bullying in the workplace. One that I found was a blog from the Open University, Office conflict: the impact of workplace bullying. Another terrific resource is How to deal with workplace bullying and how to tackle bullying at work, also from the United Kingdom. My favorite resource, however, regarding petty tyranny in the workplace is the book The No Asshole Rule—Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, which I’ve blogged about before. His book is about paid employees, but it most definitely applies to volunteers.

My own advice as well:

    • Document, document, document. Have dates, places and details about the actions of a toxic volunteer in writing. Have details in writing on the consequences of the bullying, such as other volunteers not participating in activities if the toxic volunteer will be there, volunteers dropping out of participation altogether, little or no new volunteers participating in certain activities, and complaints from other volunteers, paid staff and clients. Be ready to present these to your supervisor, the head of your human resources department, and even the head of your organization. Don’t wait to be asked to present this information, and don’t be discouraged if your initial presentation of such doesn’t prompt action; it may take several presentations to get the message across that the toxic volunteer must be let go.
  • Be consistent in applying the rules to all volunteers, so there is no possibility of a toxic volunteer claiming you are singling her or him out, something she or he will be tempted to claim to other volunteers and to paid staff she or he has a long-term relationship with. This starts to create an atmosphere where the toxic volunteer will start to feel unwelcomed and will indirectly encourage her or him to move on.
  • Be willing to lose the bully, as well as her or his allies among your volunteers, and to answer questions from staff or other volunteers who express displeasure at their departure. If you create an environment where the bully cannot engage in toxic behavior without having consequences for that behavior, that volunteer will probably leave your organization, but not without a dramatic exit, like a fiery letter or email or an emotional final meeting, and she or he may successfully encourage other volunteers to leave as well. Say goodbye and wish them well and calmly move on, focusing on your remaining volunteers, reaching out to volunteers who left because of the toxic volunteer, recruiting new volunteers, staying dispassionate and staying positive.
  • Never, ever trash talk the bully to other staff or volunteers, even if you consider those staff or volunteers sympathetic to you. Those words could come back to haunt you. Be above reproach in any comments you make about the toxic volunteer, even among allies. It’s fine for volunteers to share complaints with you regarding a bullying volunteer, but keep it dispassionate and don’t allow them to cross a line where they could be accused of being bullies themselves.

Be on the lookout for misinterpretations and misrepresentations of your actions, and ready to respond to such immediately, quickly and decisively.

Don’t think that the situation will somehow work itself out. It won’t.

Also see: