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"Poking the Bear." Responsibility to Stop Bad Behavior.

Updated on November 7, 2011

Imagine this scenario. . . a family is visiting the local zoo. While viewing the bear habitat with his mother and father, a young boy picks up a stick. He uses the stick to taunt the bear behind the bars. Other zoo visitors are feeding the bear watching the boy use his stick to poke at the bear. The bear is now getting agitated. He wants the food, but whenever he comes to the edge of the cage, the boy pokes at him with the stick. After a few minutes, the bear begins to growl a bit at the boy. After a few more minutes, the bear tries to hit the stick away. Finally, the boy pokes the bear in the eye with the stick. The bear, hurt and angry, swipes with his powerful paw and sharp claws. The boy jumps back scared but uninjured. The zoo visitors cry out that the bear is dangerous and something should be done because the bear tried to hurt the little boy.

Now, let's apply the same scenario to the workplace.

1. The bear is the supervisor.

2. The boy is an employee.

3. The parents are other supervisors.

4. The visitors are other employees.

According to Urban Dictionary, The phrase "poking the bear" refers to acting in such a way that your actions may eventually cause trouble.

Hve you ever been in a situation as a supervisor when you felt poked and proded by an employee?

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Have you ever reached that point where you just couldn't take it anymore and you lost your cool with an employee?

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As much as we'd all like to answer that questions with a resounding "No!" we cannot. After all, no matter how mild tempered you are, there will come a time when people push your buttons, when they "Poke the Bear."

Having witnessed this situation first-hand, and relying on that ever-faithful 20-20 hindsight, I realize that no matter how bad it gets with any one employee, the supervisor should never lose his/her composure. Granted it may be difficult, but in the long run, supervisors have generally been promoted to positions of responsibility for their ability to handle people and conflict. But, don't get me wrong. I also believe the employee holds equal responsibility for behaving in a productive vice destructive manner. The onus of responsibility should not be placed entirely on the shoulders of the supervisor.

I worked for an organization that believed that employees were to be protected from the oh-so powerful supervisor. While the supervisor does maintain power over employees (thus the analogy that the bear is kept behind bars away from the employee for the employee's protection), their power is not necessarily negative and should never be automatically percieved as such. Even though the big, bad bear is kept behind bars, he needs protection too. All employees deserve to be protected from the harassment of others regardless of their level of responsibility in the organization. Unfortunately, the perception in this particular environment held that if the employee complained that the supervisor was a threat then the supervisor was a threat. Seldom did the organization examine the employee's role in provoking the supervisor if, in fact, the supervisor did take a "swipe."

Who was there to take the stick away from the boy so that the bear did not get hurt?

Aside from the organization actively examing the cause of conflict between a supervisor and an employee, I also question the active roles of those supervisors and employees who had an opportunity to help prevent conflict but failed to do so through inaction. For example, if the little boy in the zoo scenario had been mauled by the bear, chances are that the bear would be punished - to the extreme, the bear might be put down. Are the parents punished for allowing their child to behave badly in a dangerous situation? Are the zoo visitors punished for not speaking up to the boy or his parents? Are they punished for not notifying zoo officials that one of the animals was in danger? Should any individual be allowed to poke at another human being or animal? Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this type of behavior considered bullying or animal cruelty?

It is no different in the workplace. Neither employees or supervisors should be permitted to harass, taunt, or otherwise make miserable the lives of others without some level of intervention. Too often in the workplace, people speak up after the damage is done - after the conflict has escalated to a point of no return. They feel it is not their place to say anything. I feel that we owe each other the common courtesy of looking out for bad behavior. We need to have our eyes and ears open, constantly vigilant of the little boy about to "poke the bear." I challenge those of you who witness behavior that can eventually cause trouble to speak up.

You can stop the behavior. You can take the stick away!


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      Rae 5 years ago

      This happens in families as well. Sometimes the poking is not with a stick out in the open but very manipulatively knowing that nothing will be said so that peace is kept. The bullying goes on for years.