Blind Spots: Human Resources and the Toxic Leader

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Fran S.

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Human Resources professionals have a difficult and often thankless job.  They are responsible for partnering with their businesses and leadership to advance strategic and functional objectives while attending to the sticky, messy and sometimes very complicated aspects of human beings.  It is a balancing act, and one I fully appreciate, having been a human resources consultant, investigator, trainer, and culture change guide for nearly 30 years. I will be the first to say that a good HR department can make or break the experience of employees from the last hired to the most senior. Yet, lately, I see some blind spots.  Courageous friends take a risk to point out blind spots that those they care about can’t see…so it is with abiding respect and affection I turn to HR professionals and encourage them to try to do better with bullies.

A magnifying glass has, of late, been turned on unlawful harassment, and, rightfully, organizations are focused on addressing systems that have not always resulted in respect and accountability.  This is essential.  However, if we believe people deserve safety, fairness, and respect in their workplaces, there needs to be a similar focus on abusive conduct that is neither gender-based nor unlawful.  Relational aggression, or “quiet bullying,” is a serious problem.

Quiet bullying is also known as “indirect aggression” (Bjorkvist & Lagerspetz, 1992), hostile behavior that is carried out in order to harm an opponent without “outing” or being identified as the aggressor.”  Crick and Grotpeter described “relational aggression” as behavior, either over or covert that is intended to harm others via damage to relationships or group inclusion (Crick & Grotpeter, June,1995).

Quiet bullies are abusive individuals who have developed and nurtured advanced capabilities in impression management, aptly discerning people’s vulnerabilities and strategically exploiting those vulnerabilities.  They are, more often than not, extremely intelligent and able to “game” situations at a sophisticated level.  They are generally very, very, good at what they do. You may recognize them as the people upon whom organizations may bestow the label, “outstanding performer with some difficult personality traits.”  The quiet bully is a serial bully who focuses on one person at a time, and systematically tears away at their wellbeing, their confidence and their capacity to show up in a meaningful way at their job.  They use a wide array of predictable tactics to go after their prey: micromanaging them, assigning them unrealistic workloads or deadlines, withholding resources, denigrating them publicly, spreading misinformation, gaslighting and demining with faint praise. They drive employees towards quitting or, eventually, being fired. There is often, for those who care to look, a trail of resignations and terminations trailing behind them.  All of this while, when dealing with clients or superiors, such tendencies are obscured by an appreciation of the excellent work product they produce, the dollars they bring in, or their own carefully constructed image of indispensability.

One of the most potent weapons bullies have is their practical authority and power over employees. Bullying leaders have many tools at their disposal – evaluation, assignment, reward, recognition, discipline, and development amongst others.  By, for instance, giving assignments with unrealistic deadlines, failing to be available to respond to questions about those assignments or to provide assistance when needed, giving people overlapping assignments to create conflict and friction, commenting to their own leaders about the challenges of managing an individual, or casually sharing confidential information about the employee, they create for the targeted employee an atmosphere of constant, unpredictable threat.  When human beings are persistently in a threatening, unsafe environment, they begin to do things that are meant for self-preservation – hiding, absenting, avoiding taking risks, spending excessive time documenting their perspectives, seeking allies by criticizing their leaders – things that can be captured by the bully as evidence of the target’s performance and behavioral inadequacies.  The targets start to look like “bad employees,” without the context or the cause is apparent.

Toxic, bullying leaders manage everyone, including their Human Resources partners.  They set up and carefully document performance problems that they themselves have manufactured or engineered, and frame responses to their abuse as behavior problems seeking Human Resources support for Performance Improvement Plans and disciplinary actions.  Human resources professionals, who are equally susceptible to the craft of these bullies, are often impressed with the careful work and documentation of the bully and therefore fail to reflect on the long history of individuals with suspiciously similar problems under the leader or the high rate of their employee attrition. Particularly if the HR person is assessing the relative value of a high-performing bully against a relatively junior employee, they may buy into the notion that supporting the valued leader is the first priority, regardless of their known “difficulty.”

Acting from the automatic assumptions hidden in these blind spots, human resources may unwittingly throw their own organizational authority behind the craft of the bully.  Most significantly, they may fail to exercise curiosity about the situation as a whole but instead automatically and willingly supporting the leader, diligently assisting them in administering performance feedback, warnings, disciplinary memos and other markers of the leader’s power over the employee.  Professionally, they may be gratified to be able to assist to such a high performing leader, seeing such support as a priority for them in their role.  Particularly in organizations that accrue special treatment to their high-performing leaders, the human resources professional will be recognized for their careful work and readiness to provide their expertise to bring about the leader’s desired result.

Too often, though, if the HR person has truly been paying attention, they know something isn’t right.    They know the history, and perhaps they have even been told directly about the “difficulty” of this leader.  In fact, they may have tried to explain to more than one employee that the employees must learn to work with the leader, explaining that while the leader is “challenging,” that is just their style. Rather than playing the role of neutral observer and challenging the tacit assumptions of indispensability or pushing back against the unearned privilege of the high-worth bully, the human resources person may focus on being of assistance to them, and by doing so, may enable and perpetuate a costly problem for the organization. The problem continues, the damage spreads, and often, by the time the employee themselves approach HR out of a sense of desperation, they are seen and treated as a “problem employee.”  Confirmation bias sets in, and the employee’s distress and struggle are viewed as evidence of their problematic performance or behavior, rather than legitimate fear and pain resulting from the behavior of an abusive manager.  The challenge for human resources professionals is to recognize this pattern and to have the courage to name it and to see that it is recognized and addressed.

Over the years, I have seen many passionate and courageous HR professionals stand up for employees who are being mistreated, but I have also frequently seen HR professionals themselves unwittingly lured into the web of manipulation and psychological abuse that bullies weave.  When these bullies are at work in an organization, there are few in a position to name them and to help leaders see them clearly. Human resources has that lens and that responsibility.  It is HR that can uniquely understand the negative side of the ledger that counts the contributions of bullying employees, but rarely the costs. As employee advocates as well as management partners, human resource professionals have the capacity to name things in their organizational culture that may be hidden from leaders by the leaders’ own blind spots.  To do that, however, HR has to get past their own blind spots.  In order to do so, here are a few tips to think about:

  • When a department/unit. or leader has a reputation for being “difficult” or having a “tough personality,” consider the costs of those qualities on their people and consider proactively recommending coaching for the leader or a climate assessment for the department/unit.

  • When a department/unit or leader with known retention challenges, or with a history of concerns or complaints about treatment wishes to “hold an employee accountable,” engage in due diligence by speaking with the employee privately prior to assisting with corrective or disciplinary action.

  • Proactively provide training that focuses on skills to build expectations of, perceptions of, and behavior that promotes respect, safety, and fairness.

  • Recognize that bullying often causes employee engagement, attendance, attitude and performance to destabilize. When there appears to be a precipitous change in the perception of an employee, examine historical performance and effectiveness data and get curious if things do not add up.

    • Moreover, discuss the change with the employee to determine if the precipitous change is the result of things outside the workplace, and if the employee could benefit from resources or assistance.

  • Challenge leaders to bring their people along and to demonstrate and document developmental coaching prior to implementing performance improvement actions. Ask leaders what they are doing to help a struggling employee succeed, and what their plan is to succeed as a manager, supervisor or leader.

  • Work with your own leaders to promote civility, respect, safety, and fairness as critical guidance when assessing readiness for leadership roles.

I am forever grateful to the insights I gain while working deep within organizational culture.  I hope those taking the challenge to examine how we can all do better find some value in this article.


Bjorkvist, K., & Lagerspetz, K. &. (1992). Do Girls Manipulate and Boys Fight? Developmental Trends in

Regard to Direct and Indirect Aggression. Aggressive Behavior (2), 117=27.

Crick, N. e. (2001). Relational Victimization in Childhood and Adolescence: I hurt you through the grapevine. In J. Juvonen, & S. e. Graham, Peer Harassment in School: The Plight of the Vulnerable and the victimized (pp. 196-214). New York: Guilford Press.


Fran S.

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