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Bullies in public office

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Every job has bullies. Voice-raising, tough-talking, aggressive alpha types who use force and fury instead of listening and empathy

And too often these bullies are lauded as people who get stuff done, the trailblazers. Nary a peep, however, is made about the bodies these chest-thumping silverbacks leave strewn by the roadside.

But there's little to like about a bully. They hector and insult, throw and punch things, belittle and shout. They are two-year-olds throwing tantrums because mommy won't give them a candy bar. But these sociopaths are supposedly grown-ups.

When I worked with the Ontario Conservatives and the BC Liberals, I spent much time with rage-a-holics. One elected official, panicked about protestors ringing a site we were about to visit, yelled at me to stop the car. When I mentioned that we were in the middle of traffic and that I would turn around at the first available opportunity, he started hitting me in the arm. I checked the rearview mirror, saw that no one was behind us, and I slammed on the brakes. I turned to the bully and, choosing my words carefully, warned him that the next time he hit me, I would push him out of a moving car. He went silent. I wondered if I would be fired. I wasn't. And he didn't hit me again.

I've seen cabinet ministers reduce political staff to tears. I saw a former Finance Minister throw a briefing binder because of a minor incident. I saw a Minister, furious with an employee, follow that employee up the length of the office, screaming in his face, threatening him and then firing him. The whole office was witness to this detestable, infantile behaviour.

One colleague was told almost weekly by an elected official that he was "fucking fired!!" After the fifth or six fucking firing, the employee seemed desensitized, but we knew that each curse-laden scream from the elected official was another humiliation, even if the threat rang hollow.

Andrew Rawnsley's forthcoming book, The End of the Party, about the travails of Britain's New Labour, recounts how members of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's staff called the National Bullying Hotline because of Brown's bullying behaviour. Members of Brown's staff are trying to spin his wild temperament as the result of a man of passions (I've seen Brown speak. He has no passions). Brown himself has said that he's no rage-monkey but someone who is "strong-willed...very determined".

This month's Toronto Life features a cover story on George Smitherman, the former Ontario Liberal Deputy Premier and Toronto mayor wannabe. For those not familiar with Mr. Smitherman, his nickname is "Furious George". Nuff said. He burns through staff, he yells and hollers, has a famously thin skin, and isn't afraid of getting clippy with reporters.

Brown's feeble defence is similarly deployed to defend Smitherman's irrational behaviour. That he cares too much; that he's passionate.

If he cared too much, then he'd really care about being a jackass to other human beings. He'd have the emotional intelligence to recognize how his actions hurt other people; he'd seek anger-management counseling.

Fortunately, Toronto doesn't have a strong mayor system like Chicago. If Smitherman should be elected mayor, he will have to work with a council, and shoutty, yelly George will learn tout de suite that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

What Brown, Smitherman, and the shall-remain-anonymous elected officials I mentioned above all seem to have in common is a possible shortage of emotional intelligence.

Heaps of behavioural and organizational research indicates that intelligence is the best predictor of employee performance. This is because people who are intelligent are quick to learn their jobs and approach their jobs with more depth. However, intelligence isn't the be all and end all. If Ms. Super Cerebral is abrasive, workplace conflict ends up offsetting any benefit gained from enhanced productivity.

Therefore, someone who is emotionally intelligent, has control over his own emotions and can respond empathetically and maturely to others' emotions, is always better for business and for politics.

Those with higher EQ's (emotional quotients) are better at teamwork, better at customer service (and politics is all about customer service), better at leadership, better at guiding people through periods of change.

Aren't these the qualities we want in our elected officials? So why are we under the illusion that furrow-browed, anger machines get stuff done? They don't. It's like the episode of Seinfeld where George's strategy of looking busy while actually doing nothing was to stomp around in a perennial mood of irritation.

If Smitherman, Brown et al aren't convinced that being a bully is simply bad for getting things done, how about this: at some point in our lives, especially in the lives of politicians, ascent becomes descent, like the path of a projectile - the top of that parabola will eventually be reached. Those who are the target of bullying on the way up will inevitably be seen on the way down.

Don't be surprised if no one holds out a hand to break your fall.

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