On the day I lost the leadership of the NSW Liberal party in 2002, my mother reminded me of the advice she had given me during the tough times in Parliament – ‘don’t let them see you cry’.
Fortunately, this was a skill I had mastered during my 12 years on Macquarie Street. I have no doubt people see the name-calling and mud-slinging that takes place in the chamber and think politics is rife with bullying. What they don’t know is that it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I would say it reached a pinnacle when a member of the Opposition yelled at me to ‘get yourself a facelift!’ one day when I was speaking. A childish insult unbecoming of a person entrusted by their constituents to represent them in the parliament – but at least made publicly so that when I called him out on it there were consequences. It’s what goes on outside of the public eye that really cuts you to the core.
I remember one particularly vicious press conference where I was attacked on all fronts, with behaviour bordering on verbal abuse. The experience drove my press secretary to tears and left me shaken and with a sense of disbelief that grown, professional adults could resort to behaviour reminiscent of a schoolyard mob.
I later found out from a friendly journalist that the other journalists had been plotting in the common room to make me cry so that they could report in the news that I wasn’t coping with the leadership. Needless to say they weren’t happy that I’d kept it together. I once again thanked my mother for her sound advice.
The power of a bully lies in their ability to provoke a reaction and undermine a person’s confidence so they can tell a story that you’re not up to the task. Whilst most of us can cope fairly well with being at the end of a sharp comment or insult, persistent abuse over time can break even the most confident person. If the jibes are coming from a group of people, this only amplifies the affect.
We all have a part to play in cultivating accepting and supportive workplaces and from time-to-time, this might mean calling out bullying behaviour even if you are not its primary victim. Sometimes we need to speak on behalf of others, particularly when they are feeling disempowered and finding it hard to voice it themselves.
Let’s not forget that the impact of bullying in the workplace can permeate far beyond the effect on the victims themselves. Enabling this behaviour, or some cases even encouraging it to flourish, can create a toxic culture where support for talent and ambition is quickly replaced with blame and disdain.
Bullying is designed to cut people down, so it’s no wonder people find it difficult to speak up when it is happening to them. One of my biggest failings as party leader was that I didn’t feel as if I could admit to anyone that I was feeling overwhelmed. I felt that I couldn’t talk to any of my colleagues because they would have taken it as a sign of weakness. I was the first female to lead a major political party in New South Wales and there was no one around at the time in a similar position to me. I didn’t know where to turn.
Looking back, things might have been different if I had admitted to someone that I wasn’t coping and asked for advice. Seeking help is a sign of strength – it takes a great deal of courage, particularly if you’re in a leadership role, to admit that you are struggling.
If you’re facing adversity you’ve got to be brave. After that press conference where the journos tried to make me cry, I woke up to the headline ‘Dead Woman Walking’. Yes that hurt and yes, it was hard to walk out the door that day, and walk into work with a smile on my face. But I did it – and it wasn’t a false smile. It was a thousand wattage Chika special grounded in the fact that I believed what I was doing was worthwhile.
No matter what the critics are saying always believe in yourself.
There may be merit in their criticism and by all means take that on board and work to improve – we can always strive to do better. But if it’s not valid, ignore it. That ‘Dead woman walking’ headline? The paper went straight to the bin, where I am pretty sure the dog peed on it.