Is there a target on your back? Felix wanted to belong, but from his early years he actively alienated his peers. It made him unpopular, and therefore unhappy, and it made him a victim of group bullying at school. For most of his life there was a significant divergence between the way he saw himself and the way his peers saw him.
According to the way he was treated.
A little under average height, he said he became a fast runner because he would shoot from the lip with smart-alec retorts and insults and then would have to get away from the person he had just offended. It took him many years to make the connection between his behaviour and his rejection by those around him.
An instinctively friendly and outgoing person, he became introverted and a misfit.
Sadly, his story is not a unique one. Many a maverick has had a similar experience and can show you the scars. What they can tell you (and will probably prefer not to) is that they were also bullied. They became victims and probably didn’t understand why they were targeted. Did they unconsciously place a target on their own backs? Let’s consider what bullying is about and why it is closely linked to the lives of those we call mavericks.
In simple terms, bullies use their power to intimidate, mock or enslave their victims. It often starts as a single incident in which they dominate a person and establish a de facto superiority. That power could be a larger physique, a greater energy, or a quicker mind. Or it could be a more senior position, such as a longer-standing member of the organisation or a higher rank, such as at work. It is the unfair use of that power to harm the victim.
Bullying occurs in every group, and even in 1-2-1 relationships such as marriage. I’d like to address only the situations that involve mavericks and misfits, who are not always the same.
The bully’s victim is often someone you’d consider an unlikely target. I know a highly qualified professional person who gets taken advantage of all the time. She gets ripped off by tradesmen, her immediate neighbours make her life uncomfortable by their noise and their disregard for boundaries and shared space. Her long-standing friends tell her, “They can see you coming!” Something about her demeanour signals, “Bully me!”
And yet, she is generous to a fault, forgiving and always prepared to make allowances for the bad behaviour of others. So what is it about her that makes her a victim? What is it about anyone that encourages bullies to pick on them? And what is it that turns a person into a bully?
I was bullied for a time at my boarding school. One of the ring leaders, a boy called Tham, would lead a group of 20 or more to hound me, hurling personal abuse and calling me a coward. They were 20, I was one. It stopped when I took up boxing and did rather well at it. One day, that same Tham got on the nerves of his locker-room neighbour, Thomas, who didn’t waste time on words. He just belted Tham on the ear, drawing blood. Tham just stood there and cried.
I asked him, “Who’s the coward now?”
Bullies need the thrill of exercising their power to dominate another person. It flatters their ego and gives them a certain status in the group. In relationships they gain the advantage of having the other person do their bidding. It takes a degree of ruthlessness and probably indicates a damaged personality. Not everyone can be a bully, even if the opportunity presents itself. But the instinctive bully can spot a victim as surely as if they had placed a target on their own back.
What causes a person to wear that target? One of the defining characteristics of a maverick is the tendency to break the rules. Any group has its own culture, either given to it by the organisation to which it belongs, or by developing its own way of doing things. Along comes a maverick, spots the flaw in the process or simply refuses to do things the established way. Mavericks are not team players. They have their own vision, their own way of focusing on the right outcome, and devising their own preferred route. Sometimes they will display their contempt for the established order by deliberately shaking up the process.
When they do that, by definition they will be stepping outside the group, making themselves misfits. They will be one against the group, and therefore vulnerable. The disconnect could make them unpopular, and that tells the bully, “Pick on me.” Mavericks are talented and perceptive, able to spot the hole in the argument or process and know how to put it right. Their problem lies in the way they express their point of view. Blunt to the point of rudeness, and seemingly unaware of the consequences of shooting from the lip, like Felix.
There is ample contemporary literature on the successful mavericks, such as Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Bill Gates and more. We need not spend any time on their stories here, because I have no idea if they encountered bullying on their way to riches. But I do want to consider the possible effects on a maverick victim.
When a person is treated negatively and humiliated by others, the outcome could be Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). That will make them anxious about social situations, afraid of failing to connect with others, believing that no one will want to sit beside them or speak to them at social events. It’s a real disorder, and a common one. It afflicts one in every eight people at some point in their lives, and it can harm their self esteem as well as hindering their career. It should not be ignored.
Mavericks are especially vulnerable to SAD because their behaviour can be anti-social. So what is the answer? Their saving grace might be their exceptional ability to innovate, and employers or group leaders could give them free rein outside the usual disciplines.
However, part of the solution lies with the mavericks themselves, to find a way of fitting in, even if it’s at arm’s length. It has been said many times before, that people will treat you the way you allow them to do.