Petty Tyrant

Bullies get a lot of help.

The behavior of bullies—in playgrounds or workplaces—is awful. People condemn it publicly. They craft institutional policies and even laws against bullying. They speak passionately about the scourge.

Yet it continues.

One reason for bullying’s resilience is the active participation of other people and institutions in the process.

The 12-Nov-2009 program on This American Life, Petty Tyrant,

“In Schenectady, NY, a school maintenance man named Steve Raucci works his way up the ranks for 30 years, until finally he’s in charge of the maintenance department. That’s when he starts messing with his employees. Teasing them at meetings. Punishing them with crummy work assignments. Or worse things, like secretly slashing their tires in the middle of the night.”

The program tells a horrific tale of intimidation. Raucci reign of petty terror lasted for years despite widespread knowledge of actions that violated workplace policies and more. Numerous episodes even included felonies with violent intent against employees and their families.

One dimension of the story is Raucci, his motives and his methods. He was willing to abuse his position to intimidate others. He appeared comfortable using power over others in the most blatant and unconscionable ways.

Another angle—and the one that is the primary focus here—is the extent to which many other people aided and abetted this reign of petty terror. Raucci derived some the power he exercised from his personal presence. But much more significant was the power others gave him.

  1. The Employer. When the employer, the Schenectady school board, promoted him to the head of the maintenance department, it agreed to give him the title of Head Maintenance Worker rather than Director. This subterfuge permitted Raucci to retain his position as president of the maintenance workers’ union.
  2. The Union. The union went along with this arrangement, keeping Raucci as president, a position that headed off any attempts by employees to register grievances in response to his behavior.
  3. The Employees. The employees, anxious about their job security and physical safety, kept quiet about intimidation they received or witnessed.
  4. Senior Maintenance Employees. Some senior staff members assisted Raucci in carrying out intimidation. They reasoned that Raucci’s power meant that they had no alternative but to help Raucci intimidate others.
  5. Board Members. Raucci demanded that his employees help with canvassing and other tasks to assist candidates for election to school board positions. His favors obliged board members to ignore any suggestions of impropriety came to their attention.
  6. Senior Management. Raucci drove employees to meet departmental performance targets, such as reductions in energy use, thereby developing favor with his bosses in the school district hierarchy. They sent any complaints of ill treatment back to Raucci to resolve.

Resolving the situation required police intervention. Raucci pushed his agenda a bit too hard. An employee became so frightened from intensive vandalism against his home that he went to the police. Not speaking up became more risky than speaking up. With police involvement the balance of power shifted against Raucci.

The story can be seen as the tale of a demented individual. It can also be read as a breakdown in social responsibility shared by a workplace community. The message of that story is that bullying is not a function of an individual but a function of relationships.

The case demonstrates the flaw in focusing on the individual bully rather than the community collaboration in bullying. Raucci was the only person to be penalized. The CEO of the school district, who had received various complaints about Raucci’s behavior, moved on to head up another school board. Although some system adjustments occurred—the local union was taken over by its parent organization—many qualities of the system remains the same.

What to Do

The story suggests directions for responding to petty tyrants.

The first is that ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

The second is that everyone in the vicinity of a petty tyrant carries some responsibility. Not saying anything is taking a position.

The third is that these dynamics can continue indefinitely. Waiting out the tyrant only works for those who are a lot younger than the tyrant. But even then, it sacrifices potentially productive and fulfilling time.

The fourth and most important point is that bullying on a grand scale is about power. The solution lies in connecting with an entity with more power. In this story, that power was the district attorney’s office. As organizations develop effective policies to enhance the quality of worklife, that power should be closer to home.

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