No two cultures are the same, even if they have similar qualities these characteristics manifest in different ways. I have encountered collaborative work environments where persons can be ready and willing to work together, I have also come across innovative teams that are focused on creating, planning and implementing. On the unproductive side of the spectrum I have encountered cultures that are exceedingly dysfunctional and this characteristic persists because there is no accountability to healthy behaviours. In hostile work environments bullies take deliberate action to sabotage, or trigger coworkers, abusing their power so they can win at games that are intended to hurt a person or group of persons but end up hurting the institution.
There are bullies lurking around the office who feel they make themselves look better when they put down members of their team behind their backs. They don't welcome new suggestions, in fact, they are so destabilized by new ideas that they reject the idea as not viable or they say they already thought of it, and then they criticize both you and the idea. Some bullies get angry because they confuse a suggestion with criticism. They take everything personally. The bottom line is that they are threatened by your creativity because in their minds, they should not be questioned and their ideas are the only valid ones so they seek to destroy other persons when their self-esteem is especially low.
When a coworker or manager is threatened by another coworker, a number of tactics can emerge. Some bullies insist on having employees follow their instructions to the letter. They don't allow thinkers to think. But hold on a minute, they can't afford for thinkers to think - they might be questioned... Free-thinking, outspoken employees are unafraid of speaking their minds. This is a huge risk for bullies because they may perceive you as putting their jobs or livelihood at risk and so their survival instincts kick in and you end up in the line of fire.
When survival instincts activate, bullies attempt to harass their coworkers in different ways. They make veiled or unveiled threats or they withhold something you earned. To turn up the pressure, some bullies tell lies to manipulate others into turning against you so they can control you or have something on you. They don’t care if they damage your reputation in the process. Some manager or supervisor bullies take control to extremes by constantly keeping tabs on employees they are targeting, calling them frequently, at odd hours and sending e-mails that reek of pettiness or accusatory overtones.
There are oftentimes no limits to the tactics bullies deploy. They can resort to negating everything you say, telling lies, minimizing your contribution, taking corrective action for reasons that do not warrant it, frustrating you with unwanted assignments and narrow-mindedness. They also ignore or interrupt you, sabotage you, display negative body language, practice unethical behavior like delaying or reducing your raise and directing angry or loud outbursts toward you. They gossip about you, constantly insult you or fire condescending remarks at you.
In environments where bullies exist, there is fear and unmistakable tension. Everyone on the team feels it, no matter who is being directly affected. When this happens, employees tend to move into avoidance mode because they don't want to be faced with constant, direct assault. In some circumstances, employees can feel trapped because if they tell the bully about the undesirable behavior the behavior can also worsen. If employees tell their boss' boss about the behavior this could lead to continued or worse harassment. If employees report the behavior to a lawyer they could experience other complications that jeopardize their employment in the long-term.
When executives are made aware of bullying within their teams and they do nothing to correct it, it may be because they are friends with the bully and cannot see beyond the picture the bully paints for their boss to buy into. There are other circumstances where executive(s) may be afraid or compromised and cannot take definitive action. In cases like these, nothing may be done by the executive or the bully receives a meaningless tap on the wrist. Bullies don’t like being exposed so even a tap on the wrist can cause them to attack those they perceive as the persons who exposed the behaviour.
Then there are unpredictable bullies who swing from being relatable and friendly to angry, erratic monsters who spew insults and caustic remarks without discrimination. The persons on the receiving end live in an environment that is palpable with the fear of the next surprise attack.
The Costs of Bullies:
Bullies can create costs within an organization because interaction with them will be avoided unless it is absolutely necessary. If avoidance is the chosen path of the majority, your business results can be compromised, new ideas limited, employee morale can be low, the quality of customer service can suffer, and you can lose good employees to the competition. When employees choose the avoidance path, sometimes they will embellish the truth in order to circumvent an unpleasant interaction with the bully. Self-preservation mode becomes the order of the day.
Sometimes everyone in the organization is afraid of the big bad wolf. Employees, their peers, their supervisors and executives. Author Robert Sutton recommends a number of tips for surviving bullies. They are:
- Reframe how you see things.
- Develop your emotional intelligence. This will help you navigate dysfunctional behavior designed to destabilize you and keep you in line.
- If you can, limit your exposure to the abusive behavior
- Create an exit strategy if you have done everything you can to create a workable solution. Bullies take delight in launching attacks on others and refuse to acknowledge the effects of their behaviours. Take note, I am not advocating running away from your problems, I support attempting various solutions and then if they don't work, decide what is best for you and your career. You may never use your exit strategy but you know it exists...
In some organizations employees are expected to resolve their issues with bully bosses. This puts the employee in a difficult position because they are being asked to confront a bully who has to rate that employee's performance and determine their compensation at the end of the year.
Bully bosses can be successfully neutralized by their bosses if their bosses take ownership of the problem and perceive the need to take corrective action. The first line of corrective action is the provision of opportunities for counseling, coaching or training for the bully boss. If opportunities for self-development don't help the bully to be rehabilitated, determine if s/he can operate effectively in another role, or if dismissal is a viable option.
If you feel there is a possibility that you may be a "big bad wolf", admit it to yourself and seek support. Don’t ask your team members if they are afraid of you because if they are, they will never admit it. If you are being bullied, take a look at the pros and cons of your options. Understand the risks you are taking as confronting bullying is not an easy road, especially if bullying is a blind spot among decision-makers.
Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner. If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her newsletter at www.yvettebethel.com or you can listen to her podcast at Evolve Podcast.