Friday, August 28, 2009

Ask the Administrator: The Smackdown

A longtime correspondent and fellow administrator asks:

Is there any time when a public smackdown of a campus victim bully is appropriate? Does this serve any useful purpose?

(For the uninitiated, a 'victim bully' is someone who uses claims of persecution as a bludgeon. It's C.K. Gunsalus' coinage originally.)

Looking back over the years, I can't recall a case of the smackdown ever actually working. Too many bystanders lack the context to appreciate it, so what feels to you like a well-aimed parry just comes off as a mean-spirited overreaction. It also plays into the victim bully's persecution narrative too easily. ("See? Did you see what she did? Now do you see their true agenda?")

In the moment, what can work -- I say can, not will -- is drawing the victim bully out of the shadows by having him follow his own argument to its logical conclusion. This is tricky, since the savvier ones will simply refuse to engage, but in my experience he'll tend to double down on his initial claims when cornered. If you press, he'll double down again. Keep going until he's so far out in la-la land that he has thoroughly discredited himself. (Jim does this to Michael and Dwight on The Office a lot.) The beauty of that approach is that you don't actually throw any punches; the victim bully beats himself up for you. It works best if you do it without showing much emotion.

The victim bully may or may not notice what's happening -- he probably thinks that his cause is so obviously just that everybody will rally around him once The Truth Is Exposed -- but the net effect is self-isolation. Your job is to let it happen. As the bully veers off into the land of the tinfoil hat, let him keep going. An artfully played silence after a long rant is more devastating, and cleaner, than anything you could actually say. If you really want to rub it in, let an unnaturally long pause go by, then respond with something like "duly noted."

This strategy admittedly runs counter to what most of us learn in grad school, where prestige goes to the nastiest zinger. After many years of training in that system, some of us start to equate intellect with the ability to achieve Final Victory with words.

Managing isn't about achieving Final Victory. In fact, the drive to do that is almost guaranteed to backfire. It will make you look ridiculous, since you're bound to lose a war of attrition with people who have lifetime tenure. They can just foot-drag and outlast you. Over the long term, getting positive results in this setting comes from establishing the background conditions against which people can do their best work, and winning trust that they don't have to look over their shoulders and wonder about your agenda. If you build credibility over time and don't get dragged into intramural silliness, the occasional victim bully will gradually become almost entirely irrelevant.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen an effective way of dealing with victim bullies?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.