I'm not going to lie. I'm nervous to write and publish this article. But when something scares you, the only way to move on, is to face your fears. And for me, what scares me the most is encountering bullies. And especially those in the work place.
For the past several years since I've journeyed out of school and into becoming a professional arts administrator, time and time again, I have encountered all forms of bullying; from verbal abuse, to unreasonable demands of my time and energy, and especially emotional abuse. They walk amongst us claiming to be professional. Many who've had long and prosperous careers, who will who act as your friend and mentor, claiming to have you best interests at heart, until your usefulness has surpassed its warranty. I'm not talking about a pain in the ass actor who keeps showing up late to rehearsal, or an over opinionated director. I'm talking about those with THE 3 P'S (power, platform, and prestige) and with it manipulate, abuse, and deter other artists around them for the sake of continuing to build their 3 P's. These are individuals, that past their talent and dedication to the arts, are in fact killing and demoralizing the industry. They stifle positivity, work ethic, collaboration, and most definitely inflict emotional duress amongst those around them.
Of the many I've encountered, I've narrowed them into three personality types. And with that, through my experiences, I would like to share my recommendations on dealing with them.
1. WHO IS THE "PASSIVE AGGRESSOR"?
Have you ever been an intern? And especially at a place you worked your ass to get to, and with some level of prestige? Now imagine your "boss", sits you down on your first day, doesn't explain to you what your job tasks are, or expectations, and tells you that they need you to "be a go getter", and figure out what to do on your own. So, you do, trying to act with prestige and meet the expectations you know not of, only to confused and intimidated along the way. And then at the end of the day, and every day thereafter, you are met with either silent disappointment, or worse: snippy, yet ambiguous, hurtful comments. PASSIVE AGGRESSION.
The passive aggressor is not a colloquial manager. They have minimal capability to direct, and often feel bothered to provide explanations. While at first they seem grounded, underneath they do not handle stress well, take everything personally, and get easily frustrated in their inability to express their needs. So they do what they do best, and hold it in, and instead of constructively critiquing, or offering advice, they criticize. PASSIVELY. AND. AGGRESSIVELY.
After awhile, you grow silent, afraid that any minor mistake you make will lead to something hurtful or disappointing. You retract into a shell, knowing not how to tell this person how you admire them, and all you need is little guidance. And the more PASSIVE AND AGGRESSIVE they are, the worse you become at your job.
HOW TO AVOID/ HANDLE THEM?
Stay at all times confident in yourself as an artist, person, administrator, etc. Do not let their successes, credibility, awards, etc. make you feel inferior EVER. If they say something passive aggressive, understand that in the workplace, it is infact inappropriate behavior, and counter productive. They are insecure individuals and they are lashing out from their own inability to manage.
If they are reasonable adults, try leveling with them. Say something to the effect of "hey. I understand that your frustrated lately. I don't blame you. I'm more then willing to listen to constructive feedback if you have any to offer. It kind of hurts my feelings when you say things like ____ to me." More often then not, they probably do not realize they are hurting your feelings. Remember, they take everything personally. If your doing something wrong, they first take it as an act of purposefulness, rather then approaching you and offering guidance and assistance. Instead they try and motivate you with barriers.
2. WHO IS THE "(NON-PASSIVE) AGGRESSOR"?
You would know the NON- PASSIVE AGGRESSOR if you encountered them. This is a bully who is open and even proud of being one, without shame or care. These are high maintenance minded individuals, often with extremely and unrealistic expectations of the people they manage. They will openly belittle, berate, micro manage, and insult you without fear of repercussion. In their eyes, so long as your getting a paycheck, you are at their mercy; borderline indentured servitude. But let me be very clear: this personality type is very dangerous. The bulk of them act this way because they ARE in a position of power and prestige. They have the awards, the donations, the followings, etc. And everyone around them is too nervous or embarrassed to talk up to someone with so much going for them. But deep down, most of them are highly emotional, deeply insecure, and terrified of failing.
Years ago, I worked for an artistic director who was a capital NON PASSIVE AGGRESSOR. She would humiliate me in front of other arts administrators, and behind closed doors, even scream and yell, threaten, and throw things at me. She would cut me off if I tried to express an idea or opinion during meetings all the time. I got tired of being silenced regularly, so I learned to stop speaking in the workplace. And when she started to notice my silence, she started asking for my opinion. But by that point, I was too afraid to ever give my own, scared that if I rocked the boat and offered an opinion she didn't like, I would be the subject of ridicule. From my fear or protesting, I was manipulated into work very late and irregular work hours. Often, I was often so overwhelmed from the workload, I would regularly skip lunch, and if I made the slightest human error, it would cost me all human dignity and she would be angry and cruel towards me for hours or days on end. Meetings were painful. My stomach turned into knots every time she walked into the building. And all the while, I wondered why? Why are you this foul and cruel? Can't you see I am here giving my all? Can't you see I don't eat or sleep for you? Can't you see I'm terrified of you?
HOW TO AVOID/ HANDLE THEM?
I came to learn that NON PASSIVE AGGRESSORS are unwilling to change. So don't try to. But you can make them aware of their behavior, and they will adjust ONLY IF THEY SEE CONSEQUENCES ASSOCIATED WITH THEIR ACTIONS. Understand, that more often then not, these are individuals who are miserable in their personal lives, highly insecure, and simply have no idea to handle their anxieties. They take it out on you, because they can, and because they have no where else to. Because your getting a paycheck (or something of value out of working with them), in their eyes, taking their stress is part. And that is not ok.
So here's what I suggest, and it won't be easy: You have to be brave and hit them at their most vulnerable. Quit when they need you most, making sure that they know why you are quitting, that it is related to their behavior, and be VERY SPECIFIC ABOUT THE INSTANCES THAT DROVE YOU TO QUIT. They need to see those instances. They need to feel what you felt. They need to see that it was no ok, and they were unreasonable. Be honest, direct, and mature in your delivery. If you plan to take my advice and talk to them about your feelings in the workplace, get them away from the place they feel most powerful, and where you especially feel most intimidated. Ask to talk to them outside, at a coffee shop before work, anything that will be neutral territory. I promise, they won't yell or abuse you at a coffee shop. They will be on their best behavior in neutral territory, and often they will be more receptive then in the workspace. Now, this is key: be constructive in your discussion. Don't sink to their level and be mean and snippy. Talk to them as if your interested in improving the relationship and that is why your bringing it to their attention. If afterwards, they refuse to change, then fuck them. You don't need to be working with assholes like that.
I did exactly that and things got MUCH better for me after I gave a two weeks notice. Furthermore, I said I only prove a two weeks notice out of courtesy AND ONLY if she were to be cordial to me during that time. I knew I made her scared. I was the only administrator in the office, and she couldn't handle being alone with the workload. I told her exactly how I felt. I told her I would no longer accept being treated poorly. I told her areas I needed to see effective improvement. I ended up working three months longer then the two weeks notice. Things were up and down, but overall improved before I officially left.
3. WHO IS THE DISAPPOINTED?
This is probably the more common of the three types, not that you won't found a combination of all three out there or so. This is an individual who yields disappointment as a means of manipulation, tactic, and translation. This is someone, that when a compliment is paid to you, it feels REALLY GOOD. Like- way above average good. They hook you with their recognition. And the reason it feels so good, is because either this individual rarely offers compliments, or is typically neutral and gives only harsh disappointment. You'll find that you are highly motivated around them, and often work really hard because this individual makes you FEAR THEIR POSSIBLE DISSAPOINTMENT, which is very different then working hard because your excited and enthusiastic about a project.
Their compliments are momentary satisfaction, and on a dime, they can be ruthless in dissatisfaction. This is an individual with very high standards, and is often cloaked amongst talented artists that they collaborate with. By seeing them surrounded by so much talent, gives the illusion that they are impressive and interesting. They give an air of kindness and acceptance, until the select moments your misunderstood, or less then perfect at your craft. The DISSAPOINTED, is quick to turn on people. They don't need to passive aggression or outward aggression to intimidate you. All they need to bully you with is a positive outlook, and small conscious awareness of the consequences if you disappoint. They also have no problem with taking as much as your willing to give, and then some. But as soon as you need your back scratched, they are the first to pull away with a ten foot pole.
Now, disappointment is not the same thing as harsh criticism or feedback. Disappointment by definition in this case is COUNTER PRODUCTIVE CRITICISM. It offers no construction or optimism. It focuses solely on the negative aspects of the project for the sake of emotionally targeting an individual. It only points out problems, and rarely provides solutions. It stirs negative emotions and can kill collaboration and team energy. Furthermore, it can create lingering fear and discomfort as the project progresses. And it almost always targets those who work the hardest and longest, leaving themselves the most vulnerable for anything to go wrong (if someone works the hardest and longest, it means they are likely taking on larger responsibility. And if your taking on larger responsibility, your also taking on more accountability).
I also want to point out that disappointment is sometimes an appropriate response depending on the situation. If your not doing your job or meeting expectations, then yea. Your going to be disappointing. Its problematic when its being used as a tactic to motivate. It's problematic when expectations were never given to you in the first place and your guessing as you go. It's problematic when disappointment becomes an internal guessing game in your mind.
I worked with this personality type just this past year. I worked on a show that I know in my heart I went above and beyond my job title in producing. I provided photography services. I printed materials for the run of the show. I helped provide props. When others wouldn't volunteer, I helped build the set, for days and weeks at a time. I administrated it for one of the longest pre-production planning months I've ever had working on one project. When problems arose, I was always willing to find a solution to the best of my ability. And if I couldn't, I tried to be as bold as possible and admit my faults. In my heart, I did my best. But I used to think I was doing my best for the greater good of the show and for myself. Upon making one or two errors (which in retrospect were very minor and fixable), this individual was extremely quick to turn against me, and invalidated all the work I put into the show months and months prior. My greatest fear was realized: beware of erring, or suffer being shunned and severely disappointment. And I felt his disappointment like a knife through the heart. I walked on egg shells the rest of the project. It was hard to give my best with the knowledge of always feeling like I never measured up on my own without this individuals recognition.
HOW TO AVOID/ HANDLE THEM?
It's tough. This one is tricky because amongst groups of individuals, this person can be perceived as inspiring, friendly, funny, etc. And on the surface level, they can be an effective manager, willing to listen to peoples opinions, respect differing artistic personalities, crack jokes and such.
It's typical one on one behavior thats problematic. Email correspondence, texting, or phone calls is where they feel most powerful to criticize. So in person meetings are typically the best times to talk to them. They can be very understanding in person. When they have struck you with disappointment or fear, it is best to call them out on their criticism, and not in an angry way. Always constructive. Remind them of the good things you have done working with them. Let them know that your still learning, that you love the project, but that their disappointment affects you inversely. Tell them you would appreciate support and guidance, rather then disappointment.
Almost always, situations with these personality types can be resolved by having an open and honest dialogue. People don't talk anymore, and that worries me. It gets me really upset when I hear from other administrators or artists how they have personally felt by working with people like the above. How they walked away feeling exploited, insecure, unqualified, and questioning their career choice. It's not fair or right.
WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.
None of us chose this lifestyle for money (and I hope not for fame). We followed our hearts, and that makes us all extremely vulnerable individuals. We are passionate, emotional, and (most of us) right brained. And most importantly, the arts by nature is collaborative. I don't care who you think you are, what you've made, who've you worked with... You can't make a move, play, gallery exhibit, etc. without other artists involved. Which is why I'm writing this blog. These individuals are around us all the time, and they affect our ambition and inspiration. That hurts all of us.
And if you are one of the above types, please know that I don't have the utmost admiration for you. This post is in no way a criticism on you as an artist. I intend for it to be constructive, and I wrote it because it's important enough to address. There are individuals that I looked up to in my past as mentors and teachers, that have abused, tormented, and derailed me as means to teach and improve me. And for that reason, that makes you a bully. I look back, and those experiences were traumatic. And furthermore, I have met MANY young artists such as myself who have been in the same boat. And many are giving up. You are part of why they give up. I want you to meet the expectations that you seek out in everyone. I want you to treat people the way you want to be treated. I promise you, people will become vastly more dedicated, loyal, and passionate about working with you if you acknowledge your behavior.