When I try to imagine what the posts centered around this prompt will be about, the images in my head are all playgrounds, pulled hair, and “nanny nanny boo boo.” That’s not the image for me. Let’s see where the three scenarios that come to mind take this.
The first incident that comes to mind involves me as the picker-on. I can so clearly see myself in the portable that housed seventh-grade science. There was a student in class, I think his name was Tom. Tom had some type of processing delay, part of which was an inability to read social cues. Flirting and (seventh-grade circa 1970’s) suggestiveness would raise his hopes that the flirter really meant it. I still to. this. day. do not know why I got on the “flirt with Tom to be mean” bandwagon but I did. The only saving grace is that knowing I was once a perpetrator has made me doubly determined as an adult to be attuned to situations where kids are mean to other kids, especially in situations like this.
The second involves a family gathering — of people who only see each other once every 5-10 years, and usually for a funeral. The particular cousin involved is one I see only every 5-10 years but to whom I felt pretty close – I had visited him over the years and felt we had a good bit in common. He started telling a joke about African Americans, Jews, and the Holocaust. It doesn’t even matter the specific content of the joke; it was despicable. And although there wasn’t an African American or Jew in the room, it still was … wrong. I said something like, “Oh, is that a South Georgia joke?” which is a kind of cruelty on my part to lump all South Georgians together. But I felt compelled to a) not laugh and b) point out somehow that this joke didn’t ever deserve to see the light of day again. And even if there wasn’t an African American or Jew in the room, there were children. Children who listen. Intently. Even when we don’t think they’re paying a whit of attention.
Lastly, coworkers can pick on coworkers. In this case, it was an unintentional and unfortunate slight at best, or an intentional, meanspirited power play at worst. When I was transferred by my employer to a different position, one of my new tasks was a monthly conference call with 10-15 leaders of organizations we dealt with. The calls had reached the point under my predecessor that they were (to a degree) a technicality. (During an earlier phase in our organization’s life, they had been a critical lifeline as we went through a computer platform transition.) One of my coworkers (who is higher on the org chart than me) said during the call, “I wonder if we ought to be having these calls anymore.” It could be argued that the individual who said that was truly putting out a discussion point that needed to be vetted, but as someone new to the position, trying to establish authority and communication with all of the others assembled on the call, I felt undermined and unable to really rescue the situation with everyone listening. I said something like, “Maybe so but that needs to be decided offline.” But the moment for me was lost. I needed (wanted?) support, not dissent.
“Picking on” someone boils down to a lack of respect. I did not respect my classmate in Scenario Number 1 (and I was old enough to know better); My cousin did not respect people of other ethnicities in Scenario Number 2; My coworker did not respect me in Scenario Number 3. My favorite leadership blogger, Dan Rockwell (Leadership Freak) talked with Verizon’s former CEO Denny Strigl here. Mr. Strigl points out that one of the six ways managers build distrust between themselves and employees is by “lack of respect.” In my opinion, lack of respect is at the root of most “picking on” incidents, not just those between managers and employees.