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When bullying works–and when it doesn’t

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in Business Etiquette,Workplace Communication

George S. Patton led the U.S. Army through some historic battles in World War II. While his hard-charging personality may have enhanced his aggressiveness when it mattered most, it worked against him in peacetime.

In 1937, Patton wasn’t leading troops into battle. Attending his son’s football game, the highly decorated but controversial general screamed from the sidelines. Swearing constantly, Patton urged his son to “get in there and fight!”

Patton made a spectacle of himself, wearing boots and breeches as if he had just dismounted a horse. He was the only father among the onlookers; the rest of the crowd consisted of genteel mothers.Bullying

It’s impossible to know how Patton’s 13-year-old son felt during that football game, but it’s likely that he was embarrassed by his dad’s loud antics. (He wound up becoming a major general in the U.S. Army and died at age 90 in 2004.)

The incident shows the importance of context in calibrating your behavior. What’s considered impressive in war—yelling, swearing and barking orders—is viewed as inappropriate at a high school football game.

It’s fine to showcase your aggressive side when you’re facing a vicious enemy. Patton was widely hailed for his ability to harness his fury and inspire bravery on the battlefield.

But bullying your subordinates can backfire. In 1943, Patton was reprimanded after he slapped two privates struggling with fatigue after a tough skirmish.

— Adapted from “Why It Pays To Be a Jerk,” Jerry Useem, www.theatlantic.com.

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