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Lessons from “Karate Kid” About Bullying in the Workplace

How the bullied can wrestle back control

There is a scene in Karate Kid that has all of us hanging by a thread: During the final tournament – the ultimate showdown between Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso – sensei instructs Johnny to sweep Daniel’s injured leg. Johnny looks back at him with surprise. It’s a fleeting moment, but for a split second there is real indecision in his eyes. We look at him, in hopes that he might say ‘no,’ but, instead, he nods along and complies. This iconic scene raises an important question: how likely is a bully to do the right thing?

“Karate Kid – sweep the leg” on YouTube

In my experience studying behavioral psychology, ethics, and organizational culture, it is important to take into account the bully’s actual psychological profile. Bullies often possess some combination of unsavory traits, including:

  • a callous-unemotional orientation;
  • psychopathic tendencies;
  • aggressive behaviors;
  • conduct problems;
  • anti-social personality traits; and
  • susceptibility to peer pressure, anxiety, and/or depression.


This is why they are unlikely to feel compelled by shared social norms and do what is right.


It’s About the Bully’s Hubris

One thing that is often misattributed to bullies is low self-esteem. But, in fact, it’s quite the opposite: bullies attack others to keep their self-esteem high-they feel hubris, or even narcissistic pride, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to protect their egotistical sense of self-importance. Thus, if somebody who is likeable, competent, or otherwise possesses some other trait that the bully lacks threatens the bully’s social standing, that person must pay a price. Wearing his skeleton Halloween costume, Johnny cannot stop beating Daniel up; when his friends tell him to give it a rest, he has no qualms: “enemies deserve no mercy.”

“Karate Kid halloween fight (1984)” on YouTube

The bullied target has done nothing to deserve the bully’s treatment. In “Karate Kid”, Daniel spending time with Ali (Johnny’s ex-girlfriend) and other friends on the beach is a good metaphor for this behavior. Ali and Johnny are already ancient history, as one of Johnny’s friends is quick to note; yet, Johnny cannot stand the fact that Ali is hanging out with Daniel. That feels like a personal affront to him.

Bring this scenario into the workplace: imagine that you’ve just been hired for a role that requires unique technical competencies. Your boss has a much bigger job than yours, but s/he doesn’t have your expertise and feels threatened by your technical competence. You are doing nothing wrong, just your job as well as you can-what you were hired for-but, in your boss’s eye, you are lessening his/her social standing.


The One-Two Punch: Inflicting Harm, Manipulating Others

The bully’s behavior and emotional reactions are primitive, but the twisted conduct s/he will likely engage in can be exceptionally effective. For example, it’s been noted that bullies use overt or covert terror not only to crash their target/s but also to silence those around them. At the same time, bullies know how to use their power to win the loyalty of other team members. They can display a charming and altruistic side at the right time, using resources to help non-threatening colleagues. This has a two-fold effect:

  • On the one hand, it is another way for the bully to express egotistical pride and demonstrate his/her superior social status-the bully proves s/he has the resources and influence that go with his/her puffed-up higher standing in the group.
  • On the other hand, the bully’s selective kindness is enough to confuse those who are not targeted by him/her. Unlike the colleagues who’ve been bullied, the beneficiaries of the bully’s ‘niceness’ can bask in the bully’s higher status and feel special themselves. This explains why bullying is often framed as a form of conflict rather than as outright abuse.


Such common rationalization is an attempt to explain away the bully’s behavior without questioning one’s bystander role. In fact, if the bullied target tries to stand up for himself/herself, s/he will likely be viewed as someone craving social conflict.


Miyagi’s Three Hidden Bully Defenses

While bullied targets must be careful, given the bully’s vicious mindset, they must also find ways to stand up to their tormentor. Not only will that help reduce the damages that the bullying is likely to inflict on the target’s emotional well-being, but it is also necessary to contain the bully’s conduct.

Bullies can be quite impulsive and they lack self-control. If left unleashed, they will likely continue to pick on their victims. So, how should the bullied manage the bully and protect themselves? Learning from Miyagi’s teachings to Daniel, there are three moves of mental strength bullied targets need to master to overcome the bully’s outer power.

1. Wax On, Wax Off. Remember when Miyagi asks Daniel to complete several ‘grunt work tasks when they meet each other? The unforgettable car washing scene, where Miyagi gives him specific instructions: “Wax on, right side; wax off, left side.” It’s indelible. And that is the first practice the bullied target needs to engage in. S/he must remember what his/her fundamental strengths are. Instead of viewing these strengths as common and menial-similar to how the act of waxing on and waxing off might feel on the surface-the bullied target must reconnect with them, recognize how unique they are, and continue practicing them.

2. Learn the Punch. When Miyagi teaches Daniel how to punch, he says “the secret to punch…make power; whole body fitting inside one inch…” That’s the second lesson the bullied target must learn. S/he must bring his/her whole self to the punch, not just his/her disgust and aversion for the bully, but his/her heart and compassion. While bullies should never be excused, bullied targets must learn to look at their tormentors with compassion. That will help them see the shame that plagues the mind of the bully, creating a path to overcome the sense of control the bully is trying to exercise over them


“The Karate Kid (1984) – Learning The Punch” on YouTube

3. When It’s Time, Use the Crane Kick. There will be times of direct confrontation when the bullied target will likely stand in front of the bully injured and weakened, as Daniel continued to do in that final tournament fight, picking himself up again and again. In those moments, while the bully’s power and the hurt of his/her abusive behavior may seem inescapable, the bullied target should never forget about his/her secret move- your own personal crane kick.

The Crane Kick – The Karate Kid (8/8) Movie CLIP (1984) HD, on YouTube

It is not the job of the bullied to fix the bully. If the culture in which the bullied person operates condones bullying, the bullied target must have an exit plan and eventually move on. The crane kick is not only about leaving a toxic environment behind yourself, physically and mentally, but also about never forgetting the lessons you’ve so painfully learned:

  • the importance of internal strength;
  • what genuine respect entails; and
  • how hard the work of respecting others truly is.


Bullying prevention month is almost over, but our commitment to creating a culture of deep respect must continue. If you know somebody who is being bullied, help them find their mentor/s. If you work in a toxic culture, speak up and acknowledge what bullying entails and why your organization or team needs to connect with positive human qualities like compassion and empathy. Create self-awareness, and do not shortchange the benefits the right type of training and education can bring about.