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spot the bully

October 12, 2009

Self-awareness is a valuable commodity in life, and in woefully short supply. I’ve found recently that the one area that I wish I and others were more self-aware was within collaborative design teams. How many times recently have you been told by someone that they felt they were carrying the weight of their team? Or that of all the ideas that moved forward to implementation, they felt that theirs represented the lion’s share?

This ownership dilemma is a natural artifact of team composition. Someone always has to provide direction, while others supply support, production savvy, client management, and the like. And its common for anyone working hard within a collaborative team to feel as though their work is what is driving the team forward. There can, however be another circumstance in which one person’s ideas are shaping the produced work, while others are left to whither. The possibility is that person is a bully.

There’s an old saying in poker, “If you look around the table and can’t spot the sucker, then you are the sucker.” Self-awareness counts for a lot; recognizing the role that you’re playing, consciously or not, is a big part of being able to function effectively in team settings. If you feel that your ideas are the ones moving forward, take a moment to ask yourself the question, “are my ideas trumping everyone else’s because I’m preventing theirs from getting through?” If the honest answer to that question is yes, you just might be a bully.


Bullying takes a lot of forms, but generally asserts itself as a belief that only you know best how to solve the problem/please the client/deliver successfully. Defensiveness, argument, and downright obstinacy in the face of contrary ideas (or ideas that aren’t yours) comes next. The team stops collaborating and simply starts executing on a vision, dictated from on high (you’re the creative lead) or from below (you are a very cunning junior designer).

Think about the best case scenario for having done this: the engagement will go well, your team will be lauded, and you might even get recognized for taking the reins… but you’ll have done irreparable harm to yourself and to the people on your team. More damning, you were collaborating in order to generate the best possible solution – that’s not possible when only one person’s ideas are being considered.

There’s a lot of advice around the construction, management and interaction of collaborative teams – what I’m looking to add to all of that is the importance of reflection on circumstance. If you find the momentum of your team pushing certain ideas forward, take the opportunity to ask why, regardless of whose ideas they are. Ensure that consensus is maintained to guarantee the quality of the solution, and make sure that no one team member is stopping others’ good ideas from being considered.

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