Hierarchical Bullies

A story doing the rounds over the last couple of days concerns Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. Briefly, Miss Shepherd showed her class a video clip of a televised public debate featuring Jordan Peterson, who is either a Nazi or a fairly normal chap depending on your point of view, in order to demonstrate that there are two sides to every debate. She was then hauled over the coals for several hours and reduced to tears by these two fuckwits:

David Thompson has the story covered and I recommend anyone interested pops over there and reads both the post and the comments. The case has caused outrage, mainly because Miss Shepherd was smart enough to record her bollocking and lay bare the Kafkaesque bullying she received at the hands of her supposed academic superiors. This article from the National Post gives a flavour, as does this one from the same place regarding one of the professor’s pathetic apology.

But it was this tweet which caught my attention, referring to those interrogating Shepherd:

It would be tempting to convince ourselves that such behaviour exists only in the clown-quarter that is western academia, but what Freek Groeneveld describes is widespread throughout many modern organisations, including corporations.

Firstly there is the relying on authority. I don’t know how many times I’ve been sat in front of someone who has dared speak to me in a certain way solely because he or she sat above me in the company hierarchy. Had the roles been reversed, they’d never have uttered a squeak; had the situation arisen outside of a work environment, they’d have been lucky to avoid getting a slap. In the brief periods I’ve been a manager I learned that if you are relying solely on your authority then you’re already in trouble. By all means use your position to make a decision, but if you rely on it to prevail in an argument it’s a sign you’ve already lost. If you rely on it to manage your people effectively, then you really shouldn’t be in the post. Nobody who has earned the respect of their subordinates should be relying on their position in the managerial hierarchy (technical hierarchy is somewhat different); that should be almost incidental if you’re managing people properly.

Secondly, there’s the “we all agreed” line. Too often I have heard the words “it was discussed” in relation to a subject that was briefly mentioned in passing, rapidly glossed over, or delivered in a monologue by a manager to a subordinate. It’s a deliberate ploy to lay the foundations for the next step in a process without the necessary bother of having to make a proper case, secure agreement, or listen to dissent.

The mistake Miss Shepherd made was to cooperate with what was obviously a kangaroo court. I can see why she did, but she’d have been better off understanding that the people she was dealing with were not acting in good faith. They were not seeking an explanation, they did not want to give her an opportunity to salvage her reputation, the whole process was set up so they could exercise their power over someone in a compromised position. The whole charade was a demonstration of their power, authority, and egos – and this is true for so much of what passes for management in modern organisations.

I know this is easy to say, but she ought to have flipped the script on them. You’ve seen how frustrating little shitlord kids are, the sort you see on police reality TV shows having been caught shoplifting. When questioned they interrupt, deliberately misunderstand the question, respond to a question with one of their own, ignore their interlocutors for periods, etc. and generally show utter, complete contempt towards the people in front of them. Miss Shepherd should have opted for a form of this. e.g. by laughing in the guy’s face when he uses some stupid term like “positionality” and say “What? What the hell does that mean? Did you just invent it?” She should have shaken her head confused and asked the guy to repeat himself, and then start looking out the window when he’s halfway through doing so. There are a million passive-aggressive tricks she could have pulled to signal her contempt for the whole process and the people conducting it.

The reason she didn’t do this is because, like thousands of Soviets who were hauled before similar tribunals, they believed they’d done nothing wrong and thought cooperating would make them leave her alone. She would have worried that if she didn’t cooperate they’d punish her, possibly by firing her. We all have bills to pay, and we all need a job. This is why so many people allow themselves to get bullied by those above them in the hierarchy: they think by cooperating with unreasonable people they’ll get treated less harshly. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I suspect she was finished from the moment they hauled her in, and the only way to save herself was by fighting back – hard. She – and anyone else in a similar position – needs to understand that the worst that can happen is you lose your job: you’re not going to get shot or sent to a Siberian camp, so grow some fucking balls. Secondly, she ought to have flipped the script in the way I described until one of them loses their cool and says something which could get them fired. Or something close to it. Then she needed to walk out and pen a letter to the head of the university describing her version of the meeting, shorn of all context and scattered liberally with terms that lawyers like to use in divorce hearings. In other words, assume the role of bully for herself and go on the warpath. It might not work, and she might get fired anyway, but it might also make them back the hell off, or at least get them on the defensive and having to explain their actions. And it’s better than grovelling in front of a star-chamber.

This is how anyone should deal with a bully in any organisation. Note that I mentioned her letter should be shorn of context. This is important. A mistake a lot of people make is to write thousands of words when lodging a complaint or defending themselves, whereas the whole idea is to give the other person the biggest headache possible. I remember once being asked to sign a document I didn’t want to. I thought about writing an explanation why, but in the end I simply wrote:

“I have no intention of signing this document.”

and left it at that. Let them come back to you to find out why you won’t sign it. If you’re going to be treated like shit, don’t make it easy for them. Simply resort to one sentence replies and make them run around trying to work out what you’re thinking. Here’s another I’ve used, in its entirety:

“Your email appears to contravene the corporate ethics policy.”

I never said how or why: let them figure out what you could possibly mean. Give them a sleepless night or two. Get the headache on their desk, and off yours.

I wish more people stood up to bullies, and to Lindsay Shepherd’s credit she gave it a damned good shot; by recording the meeting and making it go viral, she’s probably going to have the last laugh. But the way to stop this thing from happening in the first place is for people to grow a pair and not cooperate. If people could stand up and shout down Stalin’s show-trials, we ought to be able to stand up to wankers like those at Wilfrid Laurier University at the risk of getting a bad report.

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22 thoughts on “Hierarchical Bullies

  1. A group of us once wanted rid of a useless boss. I persuaded my colleagues that our explanation should be simple: we said we had lost confidence in him. It worked.

  2. Hi Tim,

    The men have already been forced to apologize after donors to the college threatened to stop sending money.

  3. “they’d have been lucky to avoid getting a slap”

    Oh yes, I know this feeling well. Going Defcon 1 is usually the worst thing that you can do in a business setting type negotiation, it means that you have lost control. I must admit that I know that I suffer from this weakness but I do go to extreme lengths to avoid it, the most effective method I have found is to disengage on the point something like well that my position and lets move on, that’s if my shaking is still controllable!

    Plus I aint no spring chicken and I work in construction so maybe there is a greater survival instinct prevailing.

    “I have no intention of signing this document.”

    This is a very powerful statement to make, the temptation is always to dive into detail but it is always wrong, wrong, wrong to do that. I dont care about the situation it’s wrong to do otherwise. I have learned this through many ears experience in contract negotiations, all kinds of disputes and involvement in legal cases. Never ever go first, you really limit your defense and maximize your opponents chance of success by going first. In my last firm I was on a mega project that actually had its own dedicated QC who was in the next office to me. I asked him once if there was one single piece of legal advise and only one that he were to give me as a colleuege what would it be?

    Never ever admit liability was his response. Don’t forget even if you think that you are liable, and in a moment of truthfulness you decide to admit liability, you are a fool. Why, because you are not qualified to say that you are liable.

    How many man-hours salary are being expended in that investigation and the subsequent meeting, what do the shareholders of the business think about these costs? Canada is completely and totally fucked.

  4. Similar other one-liners I have used successfully:

    “I have a highly portable skill set, and I have been fired by wealthier and more powerful men than you.”

    “I’d like that request in writing, on company letterhead please.”

  5. Having myself once been kangaroo-courtmartialled out of a junior and vulnerable research position in a university, I can tell you you don’t get the choice not to respond or not to attend.

    I don’t, to this day, know what the charges against me were, but it was made very clear what the verdict and sentence of the one-man panel was!

    The guts (and financial insurance policy against it backfiring) to tell these people to PFO comes only with maturity.

    As a manager, my philosophy is that you have failed if you need to use your authority more than once a year (to be fair I work mainly with particularly cooperative people who actually enjoy their job). If your seldom-used authority doesn’t get someone to do their job, then it’s time for them to leave.

  6. Bardon, I have an extremely low tolerance threshold for bullshit. Both those noodle-armed manginas pictured above would have got a good slap from me and the hell with the consequences.

  7. I’d agree with BiG. We all know the line to take with arseholes like this, but it is hard to do that when you are 20.

    We look at this and know that a simple ‘go fuck yourself with a wire brush’ is what’s needed. It is hard when you are young and vulnerable and think people are nice.

    And I suspect it is even harder if you are a young woman being bullied by two older men, both of whom appear appear to be nonce-faced weirdos. I wouldn’t open image files on their hard drives for all the tea in China.

  8. *stares out window*

    “Oh, sorry, were you expecting me to say something? I thought this was just a kangaroo court being run by the Queen of Hearts. Since you’ve already decided your verdict and are not really interested in hearing from me, can we just get it over with? I have more important things to be getting on with than participating in an NKVD show trial.”

    (wish I had the balls to do that)

  9. The mistake Miss Shepherd made was to cooperate with what was obviously a kangaroo court.

    Since she was recording the proceedings she comes over in a better light by engaging with the process and had she been snarky, the subsequent interest and outrage would have been minimal. I think she did a perfect job.

  10. You wouldn’t voluntarily go within fifty miles of those two wankers based on their photographs.

  11. I thought this was just a kangaroo court being run by the Queen of Hearts.

    I once opened a disciplinary meeting by holding up the memo denoting my alleged offenses and saying “every word of this is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

  12. Having listened to the first ten minutes, it is so familiar from my incident, decades ago as it was and not in anything resembling a humanities department. “The nature of the complaint is confidential, the number of complainants is confidential, allegations have been made, we just want to get your side of the story, to understand where you’re coming from, for your sake.”

    Youtube has some great videos on why you should never talk to the police (because you can never talk yourself out of trouble, but you can talk yourself into trouble you didn’t previously have).

    These Kampus Kangaroo Kourts are even more sinister. Just imagine what it is like being a male student accused of holding eye contact with a female for a split-second too long.

  13. ““The nature of the complaint is confidential, the number of complainants is confidential, allegations have been made, we just want to get your side of the story, to understand where you’re coming from, for your sake.””

    “If that is all confidential, then so is my side of the story”.

  14. The men have already been forced to apologize after donors to the college threatened to stop sending money.

    Yes, I saw those but:

    1. They appear to be more sorry that this has blown up in their face by going viral rather than for acting that way in the first place.

    2. The apologies are stuffed-full of weasel words. They could have been written by lawyers.

    3. This sort of thing is commonplace: apologies from those who happen to have got caught are meaningless.

  15. Having myself once been kangaroo-courtmartialled out of a junior and vulnerable research position in a university, I can tell you you don’t get the choice not to respond or not to attend.

    An old grizzled physics teacher of mine used to say there are two things you have to do in life:

    1. Go to jail.
    2. Die.

    For everything else there is an option.

    I’m not being facetious; if you simply don’t attend the kangaroo court, or you show up but don’t respond, what happens? You don’t get shot, your family are not sent to Siberia. You get a bollocking and probably lose your job. This is serious, but it’s not life-and-death stuff.

    The guts (and financial insurance policy against it backfiring) to tell these people to PFO comes only with maturity.

    Absolutely.

    As a manager, my philosophy is that you have failed if you need to use your authority more than once a year (to be fair I work mainly with particularly cooperative people who actually enjoy their job). If your seldom-used authority doesn’t get someone to do their job, then it’s time for them to leave.

    That too.

  16. I’d agree with BiG. We all know the line to take with arseholes like this, but it is hard to do that when you are 20.

    We look at this and know that a simple ‘go fuck yourself with a wire brush’ is what’s needed. It is hard when you are young and vulnerable and think people are nice.

    I completely agree.

    And I suspect it is even harder if you are a young woman being bullied by two older men, both of whom appear appear to be nonce-faced weirdos. I wouldn’t open image files on their hard drives for all the tea in China.

    Lol, nor would I!

  17. Since she was recording the proceedings she comes over in a better light by engaging with the process and had she been snarky, the subsequent interest and outrage would have been minimal. I think she did a perfect job.

    Agreed, but she was lucky that it went viral and the sane world jumped in and supported her. Others won’t be so lucky.

  18. Youtube has some great videos on why you should never talk to the police (because you can never talk yourself out of trouble, but you can talk yourself into trouble you didn’t previously have).

    Good advice!

  19. He has now published quite a climbdown, using rather less obfuscatory postmodernist bullshit academese than most of his other writing:

    http://complexsingularities.net/2017/11/21/open-letter-to-my-ta-lindsay-shepherd/
    Excerpt – emphasis added:
    “I write elsewhere about reaching across the aisle to former alt-right figures as possible unexpected allies in the struggle to create a better more just society for all. But hearing all of the feedback from people and looking at the polarized response ___I am beginning to rethink so limited an approach___. Maybe we ought to strive to reach across all of our multiple divisions to find points where we can discuss such issues, air multiple perspectives, and embrace the diversity of thought. And maybe ___have to get out of an “us versus them” habit of thought to do this myself___, and to think of the goal as more than simply advancing social justice, but social betterment and progress as a whole. ”

    Given that the left is the greater sinner in the “us versus them” (lalthough maybe I feel this because I am called a nazi more often than a libtard) this, if sincere and not just a “please don’t fire me”, is quite refreshing to see.

    Still, quite why social justice is now the purview of an English teacher tells us a lot about universities today.

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