It’s been said that there are only two certainties in life, “death and taxes.” But, there is a third certainty – intimidation. From the very first time we have a sense of self; intimidation becomes a force to deal with and a reality of life. Therefore, to be successful in any aspect of life — be it personal, business or leadership — it is essential to understand, manage and overcome the ugly influence of intimidation.
The face of intimidation is the bully and the personification of this type of intimidation is our new BFF Donald Trump. The Donald has taken intimidation to an art form; so much so that he has been able to bully his way all the way to the top of the presidential election polls. Some might suggest that Trump’s achievements are an argument in favor of using intimidation as the path to success. After all, because so many people – especially in business – try to use intimidation the get what they want, it must be the way to go. But that attitude is based on the fallacy that using intimidation is a sign of strength, when in reality it is indicative of weakness.
The bully’s power over others is based on a thin veneer of threats and swagger that is backed up with little substance and a lot of insecurity. When you get beyond the bluster, bravado, intimidation and bullying of Trump, you’ve got to ask yourself, what is the stuff of his leadership? In truth there is no substance and his knee-jerk reaction to any criticism is met by lashing out with even more attempts at intimidation, which is a clear sign of deep insecurity.
Intimidation can only carry someone so far. It is important to understand that those who rely on intimidation to look strong are the weakest when they are intimidated by those who are not afraid to stand up to them. Trump has been able to effectively use intimidation to bully others, because no one has been willing or able to successfully call him out.
Trump is a reminder of another individual who used intimidation to gain out- sized sway in the political world – Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. In much the same as Trump has, McCarthy bombastically bellowed about the “thousands of communists” embedded in the government and traitors who had infiltrated the Army. Using bluster, outright lies and non-existent “files” exposing “dedicated communists,” McCarthy was able to gain notoriety by appealing to the base fears of citizens about the internal threat of Communism. He got away with this despicable activity because he intimidated his colleagues in Congress and the media who were afraid to stand up and call him out. Even Dwight Eisenhower (who should not have been intimidated by anyone), when he was running for president, failed to call McCarthy out, because he was afraid doing so “would anger the base of the Republican Party.” (Where have we heard that excuse before?)
Finally, at a nationally televised Congressional hearing called by McCarthy to “expose” communists in the Army, a little-known lawyer – Joseph Welch – brought the intimidating bully McCarthy down. When McCarthy charged that one of Welch’s attorneys had ties to a Communist organization, Welch offered his now famous putdown of McCarthy by saying, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let’s not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
And that’s all it took to bring the bully down. Almost overnight McCarthy’s national following and influence vanished. He was censured by the Senate, shunned by Republicans and disregarded by the media. He died three years later in obscurity. McCarthy is only remembered today for the term “McCarthyism” which is a synonym for intimidation and being a bully.
Intimidation in the Business World
Intimidation is a time-honored and trusted tool used by many managers in business. It’s objective is to extract desired employee behavior in the workplace. The problem is that intimidation stokes the flames of fear in those subject to its use, creating uncertainty, apprehension and paralyzing action. In truth, only the fearless are immune to intimidation, but to be fearless is irrational.
All of us have some level of fear in the workplace. We worry about not getting that raise or promotion; about being blamed when things go wrong or becoming a victim of downsizing. All too many managers exploit these fears to intimidate the worker into compliance. Intimidation can be blunt and blatant or surreptitious, but it is ultimately folly to use it because it robs victims of the ability to perform at peak levels.
We can’t eliminate the effort to intimidate us, but we can recognize that when an individual attempts to lead by relying on intimidation – Trump and McCarthy – it comes out of a feeling of weakness and insecurity, not strength and confidence. The key to surviving the intimidator is to recognize it for what it is: an attempt to bulldoze and browbeat you into submission, from a position of weakness not strength. Once you recognize the reason why some feel the need to bully and intimidate, you are well on your way to thwarting its impact.
The trait of any bully is to keep pushing so long as they think they can continue to get away with it. On the other hand, as soon as the intimidator realizes you will not be intimidated, then the whole relationship will change. Like a schoolyard bully, the only way to overcome their intimidation is to call them out. Just as Welch called out McCarthy, even though very powerful people – including a president – were intimidated and afraid to act, any bully will slink away when intimidation is thrown their way.
It worked on McCarthy, it would work on Trump and it will work for you, once you recognize the real weakness in intimidation and are willing to stand up and call it out. Don’t be intimidated; just do it!