The “Other” Harassment: The Bully in Your Office

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Fran S.

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“His face was inches from mine,” said the complainant. “I felt as though he was going to hit me. He didn’t yell but spoke so slowly that it was as though I was a child. I could feel myself shaking. He told me I was worthless, and then threw the report on my desk and stomped out.”

This (composite) statement was made by a middle-aged man in a mid-management position, describing one of many incidents involving his male manager.  The history included name-calling, public belittling, threats of job loss and the periodic throwing of objects or (in one case) destroying work product.  Desperate, he had gone to see his Human Resources manager who told him, not for the first time, that there was little she could do.  There had been numerous complaints over the years, but this behavior was neither discriminatory nor violent, and therefore was viewed more as a “style issue” than an issue of policy.  This company, like most, did not have a policy prohibiting bullying or “general harassment” – that is intimidating behavior that is not based on protected class status and does not rise to a level of threats of violence.

“The truth is,” said the Human Resources Manager when seeking my advice,” Frank (pseudonym) is one of our most effective guys, results-wise.  He manages up brilliantly and no matter his methods, he gets the job done.  When we’ve tried to influence his leader to take control of the situation, he suggests that we recruit better people for Frank.  He tells us that Frank is a driver, and the problem is his subpar staff.”

What are workplaces to do with the “Franks” of the workplace?  Talented and capable, perfectionistic and goal-driven, they are ideal leaders on paper.  Their metrics tend to shine, but not reflect the damage inflicted on others and the unused potential wasted in the process.  In the best of worlds, bullies would be spotted early in their careers and held accountable for their people’s practices.  Technical expertise would have to somehow be paired with a modicum of emotional intelligence and an understanding of human development.  That doesn’t happen in most organizations, and most particularly in the professions such as law and medicine, where one rises on the strength of their accomplishments, not their relationships.

In May, I will be presenting a short session on bullies at  Minnesota CLE’s   Strategic Discovery: Preventing Discovery Abuses and Handling Discovery Disputes. It will be focused on attorneys in litigation, but in preparation, I’ve been looking through the files of the many workplace bullies referred to me for coaching over the years.  These folks have agreed to see me because they either recognize they have an issue or they have been told that their career progress or even retention was conditional upon being coached.  From them, I have learned several things:

  • Workplace bullies are intrinsically rewarded for bullying behavior starting early in their career. Bullying men are viewed as masterful and strong-willed early on, and bullying women are looked at as defying unfortunate stereotypes about women’s lack of aggressiveness. This begins a cycle of escalating aggression and growing disregard for others.

  • Workplace bullies are often beleaguered with complex familial histories including disapproving or distant parents, abuse, abandonment or isolation. Part of their perfectionism is compensatory.

  • Workplace bullies have enormous blind spots about alternative ways to effectively direct people. They are “one-trick ponies,” although their repertory of bullying behavior may be quite extensive. In order to help them, one has to start at a very basic level to teach and practice listening skills, appreciative inquiry, and creative problem-solving. Since they are usually extremely intelligent, they may feel this is beneath them or lack patience for this kind of process.

  • Workplace bullies surprisingly view themselves as victims as often as they view themselves as contributors. A good place to read about one view of this, the “victim, villain, hero” model is in The Alpha Male Syndrome by Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson.

  • Workplace bullies often have somewhat narcissistic personalities. In coaching them, it is important to deal with several serious impediments to change, including a well-fortified sense of entitlement (for years, their behavior will have been excused because they are “so good at what they do.”), and a similarly well-developed sense that they are “special,” often demonstrated by awards, industry recognition, credentials, and successful career endeavors. One tool to help break through this involves “fieldwork” volunteering in the community and meeting with people whose lives are dramatically different from his or hers. Another tool involves opportunities to see the power of empathy by watching and discussing movies of strong but emotionally intelligent leaders — Remember the Titans, A Few Good Men, Twelve Angry Men–and don’t overlook The Devil Wears Prada — and deconstructing key scenes.

  • Workplace Bullies need 360 feedback that is deep, frank and candid. Without solid data that they are not as successful as they think they are, the bullying behavior will continue to be functional.

Since these comments focusing on dealing with the bully, and don’t focus on prevention, employers should recognize the damage that bullies cause. Research has long linked workplace bullying to PTSD, absenteeism, retention and productivity problems and to a nearly viral spread of bullying behavior in organizations where top leaders are permitted to bully. Simply put, organizations need to look past the nominal productivity of the bully to see the long term viability of their behavior. One simple way to begin to change a culture is to change harassment policies, suggesting that harassment is prohibited “for no reason or any reason.” 

While this statement may increase the need for interventions by human resources, it also provides ample opportunity to “bulk up” workplace training, particularly management training, and to begin creating a culture where bullying behavior is addressed. Add to that the “one-two punch” of a policy requiring affirmative response by any manager or supervisor to a complaint or a concern of workplace bullying, and the organization will have taken immense steps towards signaling to all that while excellence is expected, it is not at the cost of the mental or emotional health of employees.


Fran S.

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