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Careers / The Bratty Bunch

Bossy's One Thing, but Bullying . . .

So your supervisor acts as though he never grew up. Guess what? Maybe he never did, so say experts on behavior.

May 10, 1999|LIZ PULLIAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying your bad boss acts like an adolescent may be a misnomer.

Sure, teenagers are moody, erratic and self-centered--just like many bad bosses. But adolescents are supposed to be that way. Psychologists say adolescence is the time when we pick up the finer points of controlling emotions, learning empathy for others and developing consistency and a firm self-image.

So why didn't your boss learn these things?

Psychologists and academics say people who don't master the lessons of adolescence generally get off track much sooner in life than others. The experts point to early traumas, poor parenting and even biology as explanations for bad behavior.

"Although we deem it as adolescent behavior, it probably centers more around early childhood," said Thomas M. Batsis, professor of education at Loyola Marymount University and an expert in child development.

Is your boss a bully? Chances are he has been one since elementary school, or earlier. (Female bullies, though they exist, are rarer, psychologists say.) Academics who have studied playground behavior find some children are not only more aggressive, but they fail to learn how to channel that aggression.

While their peers learn to argue, debate the rules of play and compromise, bullies seem to know only how to provoke, Batsis said.

"They don't have a lot of friends and they're not really popular, because they are so aggressive," Batsis said. "They turn off the normal kids," thus losing opportunities to learn social skills that could replace bullying.

Interestingly, bullies also experience less anxiety than average kids--a trait they hold in common with many criminals, who seem to show a higher tolerance for fear and less of a flight-or-fight response to threats. Bullies also seem less able or less willing to see themselves as others see them.

"Bosses might be raging out of control, but they don't see that," Batsis said. "They're yelling, but they don't think they are."

This lack of insight often seems to combine with a lack of empathy for others--another skill that begins developing early in life.

Parents appear to play a key role in helping children put themselves in another's shoes, said Penelope K. Trickett, an associate professor of psychology at USC and a specialist in child and adolescent development. Studies show that parents can help teach empathy to toddlers by encouraging children to think about how their actions affect other people.

"Saying 'Ouch, it hurts when you bite me' [helps teach empathy] in words the child can understand," Trickett said.

Self-centered parents, those who feel no empathy themselves and those who abandon their children emotionally or physically can often thwart the development of empathy in their children, psychologists say. Although empathy is difficult to learn later in life, co-workers may be able to help the empathy-deficient by pointing out how the person's actions affect others and asking how he or she would feel in similar circumstances.

Other behavior problems seem to be biologically based.

Normal teenagers eventually learn to delay gratification, to think long term, to set goals and follow through. Those suffering from attention deficit disorder, on the other hand, thrive on the short term--and on chaos.

"A lot of your captains of industry and people in the film industry seem to suffer from ADD," Batsis mused. "These are people who can handle 10 telephones at a time. They can jump from thing to thing and really enjoy the excitement, but they can tend to steamroll other people."

Psychologists are exploring another disorder, called nonverbal learning disability, that may be biologically based. People who suffer from the disorder seem to be unable to pick up on social cues, such as body language, voice tone and facial expression, that communicate how other people are feeling. They miss the frowns or harsh tones that show another person is getting angry, for example. When they begin talking, they often miss the cues that tell them it's time to stop and give someone else a chance to speak.

"They say, 'I just don't know what I'm doing wrong,' " said Frank Manis, associate professor of psychiatry at USC. "They're constantly offending people, and they don't know why."

Like people with other learning difficulties such as dyslexia, those with nonverbal learning disability are often quite bright in other areas, but their brains don't seem to process information normally.

On the plus side, people with NLD tend to have excellent rote memory and spelling skills and they learn to speak and read earlier than normal. At the same time, they often have poor motor and spatial skills, trouble adjusting to change and difficulty making friends.

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