The popular notion is that bullying is a problem where high status kids make life miserable for lower status kids, like the star athlete picking on the awkward math nerd. Even movies portray this stereotype that those at the top of the social ladder are bullying jerks, while those at the bottom are innocent victims.
When Jonathan and I started discussing our concept of popularity and success a few years ago, we concluded the opposite: bullying was actually an issue of insecure people picking on even more insecure people.
As such, we have been pioneering a concept that the route to ending bullying is actually turning “victims” into people with useful social skills rather than emphasizing their victimhood. And, we have taken this even further by suggesting that bullies also need these social skills.
It turns out that research agrees. From the article Why It Pays To Be A Jerk, this excerpt appears:
Anyone who’s been through middle school might agree that “reputational aggression”—a k a vicious gossip, or even verbal abuse—seems to play a role in the status struggles of teenagers. Using data from North Carolina high schools, Faris uncovered a pattern showing that, contrary to the stereotype of high-status kids victimizing low-status ones, most aggression is local: kids tend to target kids close to them on the social ladder. And the higher one rises on that ladder, the more frequent the acts of aggression—until, near the very top, aggression ceases almost completely. Why? Kids with nowhere left to climb, Faris posits, have no more use for it. Indeed, the star athlete who demeaned the mild mathlete might come off as insecure. “In some ways,” Faris muses, “these people have the luxury of being kind. Their social positions are not in jeopardy.”
See that? People who actually have status generally aren’t the ones using bullying tactics on those without status. The psychological needs of bullies and the bullied are actually very similar: both need the social skills to go up in social status.
“A rising tide lifts all boats”: Could the solution to both empowering bullying victims, and fixing bullies, be to teach both victims and bullies positive social skills? We say YES.
This is why our definition of leadership and success emphasizes being cool and open to being friends with everyone because this is what makes a leader an actual leader. A confident and socially competent person isn’t going to use meanness and force tactics to “get popular,” because a confident and socially competent person knows quite simply that those tactics don’t work. So, bullies need to be taught that you don’t climb the social ladder by excluding people; you do so by including them.
It’s often difficult for some people in leadership (teachers and parents, for example) to see bullies as needing skills. Rather, bullies are seen as horrible people who must be changed through shame and punishment, likely because a lot of people in leadership are insecure bullies themselves! However, neither shame nor punishment is going to have much of an impact on stopping a bully, since as I just mentioned, bullies already are insecure.
So, let’s do a favor for both bullies and bullying victims, and help them learn the skills needed to end the whole cycle of bullying.