Dealing with an Intellectual Bully

(Sarah Hawk) #1

If you've ever had to deal with an intellectual bully in a community (someone who adds value but is rude, condescending and aggressive), then you should read this post.

It is one of the most useful things I have read on the subject. 

Note: about half way down the thread, someone that identifies as having those traits sheds some light on why he does it and how to handle it.

How To Deal With A Negative Member?
(Janet Swisher) #2

The video that Michael Downey posted in that thread is also very worth the time to watch.


(Ben) #3

Thanks for sharing this. I have a follow-up question: As a community manager, what do you wish your members would do about intellectual bullies? Would you prefer that they confront the bully directly, or turn to you to referee the situation, or something else?

I have to believe that one of the most-hated parts of community management is disciplining members. What if members felt enabled/empowered to confront bullies? What if one or several members banded together -- perhaps organized by the community manager -- to do this? It seems to me that if 5-10 members consistently spoke up when a bully strikes, that the rest of the community would join in on this self-enforcement and send a more powerful message than the community manager ever could.

(Sarah Hawk) #4

I've experimented with a few approaches on this issue. I'm not sure there is one definitive answer, because each protagonist has  different triggers.

On vB I once put someone on a global ignore list, so that no matter what they posted, no one saw it. That guy left pretty quickly, but it didn't feel like that much of a win. Banning him would have done the same thing.

I've seen a community group rally against someone, and it worked better than staff doing the job, but ultimately the guy just got angrier and started individually picking on the people in the group.

I'm interested in what purldator (from the meta.discourse post) thinks. I'll ask him and report back.

(Bo McGuffee) #5

My preferred approach is to focus on boundaries rather than the individual. I generally give people the benefit of the doubt; maybe they just don’t know how to interact appropriately or they are being fueled by something legitimate.

I start with a PM identifying asking why they behaved as they did. Usually, they will come back with an issue that they think we need to address. Then, focusing on their tone, (1) I thank them for their contribution, (2) inform them of what we’re trying to accomplish when building community, (3) identify the behavior that I see, (4) note how the current behavior is counter-productive and actually harmful to the community, and (5) ask that they consider more carefully how they present themselves. At this point, I know that we have clearly communicated our goal for a communal tone and identified a boundary and its reason.

If they continue, I then remind them that we’ve had a previous conversation about the tone being inappropriate, and remind them that we need the behavior to stop (an escalation in language).

If they still continue, I remind them that I appreciate their contributions, but they are doing active damage to the community by the way they are behaving, indeed to the extent that the good is overshadowed by the harm. I let them know that we have our boundaries for the sake of preserving the community’s well-being. And, if they are uncomfortable with those boundaries that we have established, this may not be the best community for them. After that, if it continues, then I note that they are obviously not comfortable with the boundaries that we have established, so they are not a good fit for our community, and wish them luck as they seek out a community that can meet their needs (aka, ban).

The key for me is to stay boundaries-oriented, do not fall for smoke screens, and suspend judgement so they have a chance to improve. I believe that many who are problematic in a community are lashing out for reasons not necessarily related to the issue on the table. It’s important to try to find out what is feeding the emotions driving the behavior. It is indeed possible to rehabilitate many problem members.

(Sarah Hawk) #6

I think that’s a good approach. Focussing on the behaviour rather than the individual.

(Janet Swisher) #7

If the toxic bully is the founder of your community (Linus Torvalds for Linux kernel community), you have a big problem. Most people who leave won’t bother to tell you about it, like Sarah Sharp and Matthew Garrett.

(purldator) #8

As an individual classified as an “intellectual bully” (and the one @HAWK mentioned; much obliged, chi’di), I can say one thing to put all these questions and comments into perspective.

These individuals have the capacity to have feelings too.

Not only the capacity. But they do feel. As everyone else. And you.

I have been victimized on a lot of communities because I am simply me. I am an intense, aggressive, direct, passionate and driven individual.

I am a variation of the one who makes the content your user base utilizes to give reason for visiting and populating your community in the first place.

Now, I am not excusing my behavior. I also am not excusing the behaviors --past, present and future-- of those who are also labeled bullies.

@HAWK knows well what I mean when I say that.

I may “be” one, but I do not associate nor revel in the label. I actually hate it. I am not an intellectual. The word “bully” means I do this consciously.

I am simply me. And for being me, I am vilified without my knowledge, behind proverbial closed doors, behind my back, and then thrust out by smaller groups who hold social capital in the community.

It hurts.

I went through existential depression episodes because of some of these incidents. I am not afraid to say that I called my therapist once because one community was so vile to me. That due to my high levels in writing, I was asked “English, motherfu*ker. Do you speak it?”

Rhetorical? Not really. How do I answer it when everyone is saying that I am a pretentious ass for writing as I do? That everyone said I write like this as a front to appear smart and that I think I am above them all? That my skills are so advanced as to go backwards, so now everyone assumes my writing is incorrect? And that in truth I follow the timeless adages from Elements of Style?

It baffled me. Like being gaslit on the internet. Which is a highly difficult feat for one person to do. It becomes flawless when an entire community does it in unison, in their own way.

I do not say all this to project everyone here as the real bullies.

If you get anything out of my message, again, just remember that 98% of the time, the bully is just a really passionate person and how they output it sometimes gets lost in translation, from their mind, to their fingers that type, and then the actual message they send. Their internal monologue may sound benevolent and to everyone else, it sounds malevolent. Their intention was to be giving but also tenacious and spirited like the others. At face value, it may look like hostility bottled and hurled through a textual medium.

I know, because I deal with this daily and I have to tell others “please, Say something and I will stop. Tell me, please.

How does my writing sound right now? Am I attempting to be hostile? Or am I standing above the din and roaring for my urgent plea to have the attention I think it deserves? To only be heard so needless pain and conflict ends? That this message gets through to those who would benefit from it? So the internet is one iota less venomous?

My questions are only about 20-30% rhetorical. You may answer them as critical talking points if you wish.

You may also say that a user’s actions are a reaction due to a stimulus. The user could have practiced mindfulness so as to not erupt from these surges of negative feeling. Yet the problem is not the behavior, but what caused it.

Sometimes the cause blooms from hostility projected from the user base onto this individual. Manufactured. The hostility never existed to begin with.

But yet again, if the entire userbase agrees the person is “bad” then that means the current community’s standards defines this person as bad. Like the unspoken rules of a community’s Miller Test.

And sometimes? Sometimes true evil walks in and knows exactly, on some level, what they are doing and what they plan to do to keep it up. Those individuals make my existence here more difficult when my behavior gets lumped in with their hostile intent. I was only wanting to help and contribute without assuming some form of immediate, tangible payment.

Thank you all for listening.

What did you learn this week?
(tamara Parris) #9

I agree with your approach @irreverance . I have had horrible intellectual bulling on my EHS Professional and what I learned from PM’ing the people is most did not even realize how others where interpreting their posts.

Keeping objective, we are all here to build the best community we can as the core focus leads to the path of more positive outcomes. Yes, I have had people that are just nasty - but they are few and far between.

Int fact, many would go delete their post themselves and repost after our discussion.

I like to pick up the phone and actually talk in person if possible. For my style I find it adds a more personal element to community that is often left out. > a skype call or go-to-meeting option works well also.

But then again I am online doing webinars with my people so verbal interaction is part of our community culture.

I can understand if that might not work for some other peoples style :heart_eyes:

(Alex Bowen) #10

Aw that was me!! At my old job :slight_smile: Glad you found it useful - because it was a huge issue for me. I never did follow up in that thread, but WOW did he change!

Well, I held his hand for a bit, did give him a 30 day ban…and he “came back with his tail between his legs”. As HE put it.

We had a sarcastic and serious relationship, he knew I was watching, and he did push my buttons still - but in more of a respectful and playful manner. We were able to understand each other more, and the nuances of our relationship between each other and the forum.

He was still a part of the community when I left a few months ago, being much kinder to folks and sincere.

So hey! Maybe there is hope… But, I think what helped is that my (old) community was very strong. It was def part of his identity, so he didn’t want to leave it. HE was invested and unfortunately, so much so it took a negative spin for a while. But the ban really helped and balanced him out.

Happy to talk more or answer Q’s. :slight_smile:

(Sarah Hawk) #11

Hey @Alexandra_Anna_Bowen – welcome!
This conversation has been really valuable for a lot of us. Thanks for jumping in with your offer to talk further.

Are you in a new community job?

(Kathleen Ulrich) #12

We connect around content and we are purpose and principle based.
Here is how we work with some challenging members, using some of our principles.

Principle: We self-govern and self-organize.

Principle: All discussion centers on a common frame of reference and accessible content. (And, no, your blog post does not count. It has to be a published whitepaper, article, book, body of knowledge, etc)

Principle: We are open to new ideas and support the development
of new ideas and approaches

Principle: Sub-groups organize around industry focused topics
and defined purpose. All formation of sub-groups and addition of participants follow an open, inclusive, and transparent process.

Principle: All sub-groups establish their own goals, deliverables and timelines. Updates and deliverables are shared with the entire community.

In practice, passionate people with strong ideas generally form or move to a sub-group and select members from their own colleagues and supporters, but also from the general community. This approach works both for people being bullied by the general community because of their ideas and not their behavior, and for people who are bullying the community. Formation of a subgroup is dependent on community support, so it behooves posters to behave.

Effectively, difficult people are removed from the general community, but provide all of us with collaboratively created content. Kind of a win/win. The sub-groups self-govern. Each sub-group has a mentor. So issues within the sub-group are escalated to the mentor. Mentoring can be a tough job, but the personality issues are contained. The knowledge is shared.