Leaders can be bullies too. And their poor behaviour will infect the whole organisation.
When I hear the word “bully“, even at work, I inevitably recall the schoolyard bullies of my youth. Often with a clique of sycophants, they were the nasty kids who tried to intimidate others. Their gangs were not deeply committed to being mean. They were committed to survival. Better, they reasoned, to support a thug than get sand kicked in their faces. Or worse, become the butt-end of cruel taunts about bad haircuts.
Unfortunately, we do not leave the bullies behind when we leave the playground. Bullies grow up and find their niche in adult life. The ease with which they establish themselves in an organisation—think parasitic wasp, not butterfly—signals the workplace’s tolerance for bad behaviour.
In an organisation with a strong supportive culture, managers deal with bullying swiftly and seriously. Minor incidents are treated as teachable moments. At low levels, the strategy may be as simple as one colleague being empowered to stand up for another—to make it known there is a line in the sand. At higher levels, when bad behaviour escalates, complaints about bullying are heard, taken seriously, and investigated rather than diverted and buried.
In one organisation I worked for, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) was a well-known, old-school playground bully without the finesse one might expect from a modern leader.
One day, he wandered into my office. He didn’t like my research group’s strategy and wanted to tell me so. Dropping into a chair without greeting or invitation, he rocked back and started into me. I held my position. He became angrier and raised his voice. His reputation for shouting preceded him, and I was prepared. I had decided to match him decibel for decibel. He became louder; I became louder.
He quickly realised that we were shouting at each other and began to drop the volume. I followed suit. For about 10 minutes, the loudness of the conversation rose and fell. At the end of it, he smiled at me, said, “good chat”, rocked himself out of the chair and left. We had not agreed, but we had reached a rapprochement, and he left me to manage my own team.
I would not recommend my strategy even though it worked at the time. It can be extremely frightening to have a large adult male shout at you. It is also precisely why they do it. Unless you can cope with the aggressiveness of the interaction (and frankly, why should you?), shouting back is not going to work. It’s also unprofessional and fails to address the more significant structural issue.
Bullying was a regular tactic in my boss’s amentarium, and I achieved a temporary, personal solution that left others exposed. Because no one had ever managed his behaviour, his experience was that shouting worked. It was rewarded by compliance, and compliance was what he wanted.
Much of the leadership literature is about the qualities that one requires to “bring people along”, sell a vision, encourage engagement, (re-)align activities, and gather support for the (new) organisational strategy. The CEO short-circuited that messy business by bullying staff. Instead of intelligent workers, he wanted compliant widgets. The tactic, however, is stupid and lazy. Leaders who adopt it will lose one of their greatest assets. Disempowering staff reduces an organisation’s human capital. The short term win of reluctant compliance is offset by a deterioration of morale, the loss of good employees, and an absence of fresh perspectives. Organisations that accept bullying in leadership tacitly agree to become weaker organisations.
Bullying is also a quickly learned behaviour that obviates the need for senior staff to hone their leadership skills. If at first you don’t succeed, shout louder. Others learn the strategy, and it becomes an existential danger for the organisation.
Unfortunately, bullies in leadership are often not ranting, physical thugs and they don’t wear convenient labels. “BEWARE, BULLY!!!”. They have more polished and sophisticated tactics. The techniques can be pretty subtle and their true nature is often concealed from those who are not the targets.
When the most senior person in the organisation is a bully, who then will take action? The organisation’s Board or equivalent should step in, but this is easier said than done. The bullied staff member needs to know how to raise their concerns to the Board, and the Board needs to have the willingness to listen and act.
For a bullied staff member to complain, they have to believe it will make a difference. Unfortunately, complaining is often the employment equivalent of stretching your neck out on the chopping block. The victim needs to trust the process, and many organisations provide no basis for that trust. For managing bullies in leadership, the process should be well known, straightforward, and direct to the Board. It never entered my head to complain about my former CEO. I thought it was my problem, and I did not know of any internal processes, let alone a route to the Board. There are also, almost certainly, gender dimensions to who is bullied, how they manage it, and how seriously they are taken.
To manage bullying complaints about leaders, Board members need to be informed, engaged, and empowered to take the complaints seriously. “The Board has an absolute and unmistakable obligation to exercise oversight of workforce culture“. For NGOs, not-for-profits and other non-commercial Boards, membership is often voluntary or unremunerated. Such part-time, “not too serious” Boards can be particularly vulnerable to Directors’ and Trustees’ ignorance and lack of training. There are also disincentives for Boards to take bullying complaints seriously about senior leadership.
The CEO is usually a member of the Board and a colleague of the rest of the members. Some of the Board members will have been nominated by the CEO. Others may have been a part of the CEO’s selection process. When the CEO nominates a person to the Board, the nominee’s sense of loyalty can cloud their judgment about the CEO’s wrong-doing. After all, if the CEO nominated me, she must be OK because I’m great. When the CEO is found wanting, there may be a real sense of failure or a loss of face by Board members involved in the appointment. If a CEO is a bully, clients and the senior leadership team may question the Board’s competence and seek a review of the due diligence processes, with all the attendant embarrassment that can flow from that. All these impediments encourage Boards to obfuscate.
A quick internal process in the guise of swift action is a short-term (wrong-headed) solution to complaints about senior leadership bullying. The result is a superficial examination of the complaint that gives the Board comfort. It allows for a peremptory dismissal of the complaint and avoids embarrassment or culpability. It is easy to imagine, for instance, excusing bullying as a matter of “management style” rather than seeing it for what it is. This is wrong. There is nothing stylish about a bully. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), superficial processes for managing leadership misconduct have a nasty habit of coming back to bite an organisation.
A better approach, which carries a higher initial cost, is to engage an external, independent party. Let them investigate the complaint. It demonstrates the matter is being taken seriously, managed impartially, and led by the evidence. It also sets a loud, zero-tolerance tone within the organisation, setting or reinforcing the organisational culture.
If there are any concerns that bullying may be ongoing, administrative leave for the CEO (without prejudice) can be applied while an investigation is conducted. An excellent example of this was the suspension of the newly appointed Director of SOAS following a complaint of racism. The suspension occurred within months of his appointment, and following an investigation, he was cleared and reinstated. Any initial embarrassment that may have been felt is washed away by sound processes.
Unfortunately, the entire premise of this piece rests on two things. First, staff must be prepared and able to raise concerns about bullying by those in leadership. Second, the Board must be trained, competent and serious about managing it. Pretty words are not enough.
Staff realities are such that it can be better to suffer in silence or leave the organisation. I have known numerous staff of various organisations who chose to go rather than complain about their toxic workplace. Until you have witnessed the pyrotechnic career collapse of those who complained and were not heard, it is sometimes difficult to understand the reluctance.
No one wants to join the ranks of the pilloried complainers. The received wisdom is to “slip away” or “put up with it”. If Boards are not prepared to hold CEOs accountable, “slip away” is sound advice—tragic and indicting, but sound.