BANTER OR BULLYING?

CHARACTER BUILDING, OR CHARACTER DEMOLISHING?

How important is it for everyone to be resilient, thick-skinned, even hard-nosed?

Life can be hard.  Without one or more of these traits we run the risk of being beaten down by the more forceful and ultra-confident types.

To illustrate, let me describe an extreme version of this:

A confident go-getter enjoys ‘banter’ with their colleagues.  One colleague is a less confident and seldom joins in with the exchange of ‘winding-up’ and derisory comments.  To some, this makes them ideal targets for such banter, and the comments start.

Initially teasing, they are easily shrugged off.  But, they continue, and can develop a hint of mocking.  Others, wanting to remain with the confident and ‘favoured’ group, will find themselves joining in, sometimes without intending to.  Within a short period of time, perhaps a few weeks, one person has become the butt of most of the ‘banter’ going on.

Originators of office/school/group banter will claim it is ‘character building’.  They believe they are helping those bearing the brunt of the humour to gain a thicker-skin, to ‘man-up’.  The ‘Butt’ may well attempt to join in, but will show their inexperience in making quips and digs and will likely receive more ‘digs’ as a result.  Initial banter is usually ignored, but continued and it gradually eats away at the recipient, resulting in lost esteem and confidence.

Life is hard.  Perhaps we should encourage this form of banter to help weed-out those not capable of defending themselves and so to form stronger teams.

But, what are we doing if this continues unabated? We are making someone’s life pretty miserable.  They will see it as bullying and will find it more and more difficult to become involved, contribute, socialise and engage.

Then there is the other extreme, where we cosset and protect the weak and avoid all banter and ‘wind-ups’.  I remember when a boss I had in the mid 90’s apologised to me for swearing.  He assumed that, as I didn’t swear, it must be that it offends me.  Bless him!  Extreme swearing does offend me, but the occasional ‘Anglo-Saxon Derivative’ (as my English teacher used to say) can add richness to the language.  The reason I didn’t swear was because I had four young impressionable daughters at home and Dad swearing, even inadvertently, was not the example I wanted to give them.

There is another way.  I saw this happen once and it had a great positive impact on me.  At one stage in my career, the boss was also the chief source of the office banter.  He would rip into anyone, strong or weak and wind them up to a high level.  Most of us recognized this and responded in kind (to a lower level; we wanted to stay in good books).  There was one chap who did not take this well.  He was a really nice guy and had much to contribute to the group.  However, it was clear that he was enjoying being at work less and less.  His mood changed and his engagement with all of us was less frequent and helpful.  He was becoming isolated.  This was not the group’s intention, but none recognised it for what it was and no-one wanted to suggest to the boss that he stopped.  In the end, the boss sorted it.  He was perceptive and understood fully the risks to the team and to our colleague.  The boss took him to one side and had a chat with him.  The next thing I know, our colleague was smiling, animated and seemingly in awe of the boss!  His output increased and his loyalty knew no bounds.  He was even seen to join in with the banter occasionally.

What did the boss say?  Eventually, my colleague confided in me.

In a nutshell the boss had told him that he was sorry that such actions and comments were upsetting him.  He told him how valuable and valued he was, how he should ignore anything that offended and to regard it as immature behavior on their part.  He wanted my colleague to come to him and tell him at any time if anything was bugging or upsetting him, because he wanted him to be happy in his work and to enjoy his time.  The boss, even said he regretted the way he behaved but that it was now expected of him and he was worried that any change would be regarded as a weakness.

In showing humanity and humility, the boss had succeeded in turning round the whole situation.

Perhaps this is the best approach when such ‘banter’ risks getting out of hand; risks losing a colleague, or worst of all, demolishes someone’s self-confidence and self-esteem.

There is no easy answer.  But, taking account of people’s feelings can result in stronger teams, stronger relationships, and stronger leadership.