Standing Up To Political Bullies

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 20, 2012

For years, I have taught courses in Interpersonal Dynamics to undergraduate and graduate business school students alike. The prime purpose of the courses has been to help people better understand themselves and others. To accomplish this, I have had people take countless personality tests to show them how and why they literally “see highly disparate realities,” experience and handle conflict very differently, have diverse learning styles, varied aims and aspirations, etc.

One of most powerful ways of helping people learn about themselves and others is to put people into different groups based on their personalities. Thus, all the people with the same personality type are put into a common group. In this way, there are as many different groups as there are different types.

Next, all of the groups are then given the same assignment to see how they respond. For instance, each group is given the same issue of a popular magazine. Each group is then asked to cut out images from the magazine that best represents their group’s idea of their “ideal organization.” Making a collage, giving it a name, and listing as many characteristics as they can of their ideal organization allows people to literally “see” and compare an internal disposition such as personality.

A key component of the course is dealing with difficult people, whether at work, play, home, with family members, etc. One of the most powerful ways of doing this is not just to have people merely read about different kinds of difficult people and proven strategies for dealing with them, but to engage in actual role-plays. Thus, people take turns role-playing a certain type of difficult person while another person role-plays how best to cope effectively with that type.

Without a doubt, one of the most stressful types of difficult people to role-play and with whom to cope effectively is the “Sherman Tank.” In his 1981classic, Coping with Difficult People (Dell, New York), Robert Bramson introduced the term Sherman Tank and wrote masterfully about it. What could be more powerful than being run over and crushed by a Sherman Tank, which is precisely what they want? It’s not surprising that just thinking about a Sherman Tank makes most people cringe.

If one has a Sherman Tank for a boss, then no matter how well one has prepared for an important presentation, then no more than 20 seconds into it, if even that, the Sherman Tank stands up and shouts something like the following, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” The effect is generally immediate and devastating. The victim usually slumps down and sulks away feeling totally worthless and utterly defeated.

In his many travels around organizations, Bramson found that there were a small number of people who knew instinctively how to stand up successfully to Sherman Tanks. As soon as a Sherman Tank got through shouting—more often than not, a person generally had to cut in to stop the Sherman—they said super calmly, “I hear that you don’t think much of my presentation, but please allow me to continue. If at the end, you still don’t think much of it, then I want to hear your criticisms.” If the Sherman continued to shout and even hurl abuse, the person stood his or her ground typically saying something like, “Excuse me, but I don’t respond well to being shouted at or called names. I would appreciate your not talking to me that way.”

In many cases, but not all, this defused the Sherman, especially in front of a group. Most people, even Sherman Tanks, are dependent upon group support.

One of Bramson’s main points was that one never won by being a Bigger Sherman. Indeed, the worst thing one could do was to attempt to out-Sherman a Sherman. This only made a Sherman even madder. After all, they were a master at their own game.

Of course, by standing up for oneself in this or in any other way, one could very well be fired. One had to be prepared for this going in. But Bramson pointed out that if there was any way of coping with a Sherman, it was by doing the exact opposite of them, i.e., by being exceedingly calm. One’s goal was to cope with a Sherman, not change them. That was for their therapist if they were wise to see that they needed help.

All of which brings me to my main point. If the Democratic Party needs anything, it needs to take a crash course in standing up to Republican and right wing bullies. Whether it is the so-called Republican “leadership” or out-and-out demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Democrats need to hold their ground calmly, simply, and repeatedly. If taking on bullies directly doesn’t always work, then neither does ignoring them altogether. It’s not part of their make-up to just go away.

For instance, Democrats do themselves and the country a great disservice by being bullied and therefore by not confronting to the repeated Republican lie that the stimulus was a complete failure. The fact is that the stimulus saved thousands of jobs and kept the economy from failing altogether.

In the highly toxic environment in which we find ourselves, politics has unfortunately become the art and science of coping with overpowering bullies. To a certain extent, it always has. I hope fervently that Democrats learn this sooner rather than later.

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 20, 2012

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Investigator with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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