Belonging Stops the Bully: 4 Lessons from the Savannah

If you’ve ever watched a wildlife documentary, you’re familiar with some of the hunting tactics used by predators and the dynamics existing between predator and prey. Observing predator-prey dynamics can help to illustrate parallels between the natural instincts of predators, and the bullying behaviors of humans – whether on the playground or in the workplace. For a fresh perspective, let’s examine four predator behaviors reflected in bullying norms, and how the “herd” (an interconnected group of individuals who know they belong) can stop bullies in their tracks by actively connecting and promoting belonging for those who need it most.

  1. Separating individuals from the herd. Predators ambush individual animals that are separated from, or on the fringe of the herd because they are easier to catch. 

The same is true with bullies. They look for individuals who are not fully integrated into the group – people who do not seem to have anyone to assist, support, or defend them. 

The herd’s defense: Herds are made up of unique individuals. Zebras’ stripes are as unique as fingerprints; no two zebras share the same patterns. Yet when zebras stay close together, the same stripes that make each one unique merge to form one moving pattern, making it nearly impossible for a lion or leopard to visually isolate a single zebra to chase. Active interconnection and belonging are natural defenses with people, too. The caring bond between a group of individuals makes each member less vulnerable to outside attack. For this reason, tenured groups can intentionally extend a welcome to new people—actively protect the vulnerability of anyone not yet fully integrated. If bullies get aggressive with someone on the fringes, the rest of the group can intervene by coming alongside the isolated person. Simply standing or sitting with targeted individuals—especially as a group—can persuade a bully to back down, because a supported target is no longer easy prey.

  1. Creating confusion and chaos. If no individuals are lingering on the fringes, predators may seek to create confusion and chaos within the herd to divide the group and increase the chances of isolating a single target (McComb et al., 2014). 

The same is true with bullies. When things are running smoothly, bullies sabotage projects, confuse lines of communication, pit leaders or teams against each other, or misrepresent facts to create a state of chaos. The confusion and noise enable bullies to be more successful in targeting victims. 

The herd’s defense: People can protect the connection between all members through a collective commitment to document and communicate decisions, collaborate openly, assume positive intent, support team members when they are not in the room, refuse to entertain gossip, and close any information loops. These actions will shut down bullies who thrive by creating confusion and discord.

  1. Using stealth and camouflage. Some predators, such as cheetahs and crocodiles, are masters at sneaking in undetected. The element of surprise is more likely to render the targeted prey defenseless. 

The same is true with bullies.  They become skilled at scanning for blind spots where individuals in the group have their guard down, from breakdowns in communication to the member who accidentally shared too much. They move in as close as they can to do maximum damage while the victim is surprised and defenseless. 

The herd’s defense: Though humans lack 360-degree vision, interconnection enables people to have each other’s backs. Individuals may not see a bully’s hidden agenda to gaslight or sabotage them, but others may catch glimpses of underhanded conniving and can warn others because they have a different vantage point.  Healthy connection causes people to look out for each other, making it harder for bullies to ambush.

  1. Targeting the weak and vulnerable. Hunting for an easy win, some predators target the weak and vulnerable members of the herd, such as the sick, injured, or young.

The same is true with bullies. Some bullies have great endurance and are willing to test people for months or years, looking for the right opportunity to catch someone in a weak or vulnerable moment. 

The herd’s defense: Every member in a group of interconnected people will face difficult moments at some point, whether it be relationship struggles, health diagnoses, personal tragedies, accidents, or simply seasons of overwhelm. Being aware of when others are carrying extra weight and providing social, emotional, and practical support can help them navigate difficult times, and prevent bullies from targeting them while they’re struggling.

This comparison exercise illustrates that no matter where bullies are found, they can be stopped. Because bullies are looking for an easy win, rather than a fair fight, caring interconnection and belonging for group members is the most effective way to confront and shut down bullying behaviors of all kinds.

About TLC

The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting.

About the Author

MaryJo Burchard (Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership) is co-founder and principal of Concord Solutions, a Virginia-based consultancy firm focused on helping leaders and organizations thrive while facing major disruption. Concord Solutions offers consulting, coaching, training, research, and keynote speaking surrounding trauma-informed leadership and assessing and building change readiness, trust, and belonging.

TLC Administration Office

820 Adams Ave. Ste 210
Audubon, PA 19403
P / 610-277-3715

TLC Leadership Academy

2600 Eisenhower Ave. Ste 100
Audubon, PA 19403
P / 610-277-3715

© Copyright The Lincoln Center 2017. All rights reserved. Site by KEYSYS