I once reported to a CEO whom I considered a friend. But circumstances intruded that impacted our relationship. Our subsidiary came under the direction of a new executive, somebody who had been a mentor of mine but didn’t know my boss.
Their first get-together was planned at a rustic retreat over a weekend, with our entire executive team in attendance. My boss told me to bring a sleeping bag and expect to sleep on the floor. I resisted. I mentioned my bad back. I suggested that I could commute each day to the retreat. The next thing I knew, I was pushed against the wall. My CEO, red-faced, was screaming at me about how I was undermining him, going around his back to his new boss. I don’t believe I gave him a reason to believe any of this, but he felt threatened, and the big guy got physical.
I never said a word about the incident to him, HR or anybody else in the office. I just started counting down the days before my next assignment would start. And so did he, reminding me repeatedly in front of my peers that I would not be around to see an initiative through, or that the "office spy" would be gone in a matter of months.
Physical bullying is pretty rare in the corporate world. But the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute published the results of a study in 2017 that showed just how commonplace bullying is. Here are some highlights:
· 61% of Americans have been bullied in the workplace, have witnessed bullying there or are aware of it.
· 61% of bullies are bosses.
· Women are more often bullied than men; Hispanics are more often bullied than other ethnic groups.
· 45% of Americans believe companies, informed of a bullying boss, won’t do anything about it.
· 39% of targets of bullying suffer anxiety, panic attacks or depression.
· 29% of bullied employees never say anything about their experience, and 65% leave their companies.
At its roots, bullying is about how and why power is applied. In physics, power is a measure of energy transfer. In organizations, power is the ability to direct people’s energy to cause change. Nothing gets accomplished without the use of power. In companies, people are granted power typically because of their expertise, accomplishments, tenure, position in the hierarchy, connections, etc.
What people do with their power can vary. We hope it might be with an objective of accomplishing something good for the organization. But power can also be used for the benefit of that person in power. And when the objective is to accrue more power, when the balance of power in a relationship is made even more uneven, bad stuff happens.
The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines bullying at work as "repeated, health-harming mistreatment of a person by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work interference or sabotage which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse."
Workplace bullying is often in the form of intimidation, insults, being ignored or talked over in meetings, having your mistakes publicized, your efforts undermined or credit for your achievements attributed to somebody else. Again, from the WBI, "it is driven by the bully's … need to control the targeted individual." The power relationship is unbalanced to begin with, and the person with the power acts to maintain or increase the imbalance.
Robert Sutton, author of The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt notes that the risk of bullying increases as people climb higher in the hierarchy. He points to research showing“that being and feeling powerful provokes people to focus more on their own needs and wants, and to become oblivious to others’ needs and feelings. And as we all know, sh*t rolls downhill.”
Maybe the act of bullying is all about feeling like you have the power, to feel control over another, whether it’s real or not. My CEO worried that the power in our relationship was flipping, and his “flight or fight” response to the threat was to assert physical dominance. I submitted. He was bigger and stronger than I was. And he was my boss. But in the hangover after his action, he must have realized that it made no difference in my relationship with his boss. Maybe he hoped that I was making an implicit concession, that he was coercing me not to take advantage of my close ties with my mentor. Unfortunately, it came at the cost of a previously healthy manager-subordinate relationship.
What to do if you’re bullied
Remember that bullying may not be illegal unless it includes a threat of physical harm (assault or stalking), affects somebody of protected status (discrimination) or creates what a reasonable person would consider a hostile work environment. Taking legal action may require that you file a report within 180 days of an incident, which means making a decision on what to do with some urgency.
A lot of literature talks about the actions employees can take to deal with bullying. Here are steps you can take to avoid remaining a target:
1. Keep your cool. Escalating emotion may temporarily throw a bully off balance, but you risk a crushing reply.
2. Confront the bully with their behavior, explain how it feels on your end and set consequences that compel respect. Fordham organizational psychology professor Paul Baard suggests quickly and directly saying, “I don’t want to be spoken to that way. Cut it out!”
You probably won’t feel comfortable making this a face-to-face conversation, and that’s OK. An email provides both communication and documentation. Be careful to write with an assumption of positive intent: “I am not sure that you meant to be demeaning, but publicly criticizing my work in a rather personal way like you did is not a good way to get my cooperation.” Be prepared for a response that focuses on a difference of opinion on management style rather than an acknowledgement of bullying. You will not likely win in this exchange, but you serve notice.
3. Change the power equation. Make it about more than just about you, because a bully seldom just picks on one person. Bring in others to your side who are having the same issue, multiplying the credibility of your arguments. More risky actions are to ally with somebody who has more power than the bully or, if the bullying regularly occurs in public, to shame the thug publicly for punching down.
4. Eliminate power as the relationship’s defining characteristic. Call out the behavior and refuse to play the game. Suggest a more constructive relationship based on collaboration, or at least that the bully will get a more satisfactory reaction from somebody who doesn’t realize what’s going on.
5. Ignore and deflect. Give no reaction, with the expectation that the bully will lose interest.
It’s not just about you
While the results of these tactics may be stop you from being bullied, they are not likely to end the bully’s behavior. He or she will probably just move on to somebody else. Trying to end the bullying behavior takes a different approach.
1. Build a case. Just like James Comey reported, take contemporaneous notes and keep them in a journal. Here is where the well-timed email about an abusive event is important. Encourage colleagues in the same situation to keep notes, too. A single episode will be dismissed. But notes of repeated misbehavior following attempts by you and others to address it may be too compelling to ignore.
2. Present your documentation and that of colleagues. The question is, “To whom?” HR is the obvious choice, especially if your company has an ombudsman program. But it is not always the best choice. Human Resources has a mandate to protect the employer. Our news is replete with headlines of people in power who have abused their station for years, whose organizations knew about it and turned a blind eye. If your bully is a senior officer, the headwinds you feel are likely felt by HR as well.
WBI’s Gary Namie suggests going to a senior employee who is not the bully’s ally with the business case. An executive’s abusive action is turning four employees into flight risks, increasing absenteeism, impacting productivity and potentially creating a legal liability. All of these have costs to the company which can be estimated. All can go away with acknowledgement of the issue and corrective action.
Don’t settle for, “I’ll look into this.” Get a commitment on what action you can expect. Will somebody talk to the perpetrator? Will they seek a commitment to address behavior? How will you learn about next steps? Are there disciplinary action that could result from repeated abusive behavior? Is there anything that can be done to ensure your job status is unaffected?
And if nothing works?
Attacking bullying, particularly by senior people, is attacking the prevailing power structure. Sometimes, bullying might just have been bad management, where an individual is not aware of how their actions impact others until they are pointed out. Sometimes, bullies are shamed or threatened into changing their ways. But many times, change is not in the cards. What then?
1. Get counsel. Knowing your legal rights is important, not just as a victim of abuse of power but as a potential whistleblower. If you are among the 2/5 of bullied employees who deal with anxiety or panic as a result, talk to a professional.
2. Get out. If you find yourself the object of continued attacks, if your attempts to fix the problem are stonewalled, if you find your physical or emotional health suffering, why stay in this kind of environment? Not all organizations operate like this. Find one where you feel power is used constructively to build positive change for the organization.
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Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.