Leaders: Are You Harboring Bullies?

beware bully bossMy client held back tears as she explained to me how a powerful woman in the so-called C-Suite humiliated her in front of her employees.

“Jim, you wouldn’t believe how she challenged everything I said–even common sense–and facts that she knew were true but wouldn’t admit it,” my client told me.

“It was awful, just awful. I don’t know how people like her are so protected. Maybe she’s got something on her boss and can get away with murder. If anyone else had treated someone like that, they would have been fired.”

Bullying affects business performance. It creates needless stress, drives turnover and creates legal problems. If an employee quits because of a bullying environment, he or she could potentially raise a claim of wrongful discharge.

More than 25 percent of U.S. workers say they’ve been bullied at work and another 20 percent say they’ve witnessed abusive conduct, including threats, intimidation, humiliation, work sabotage or verbal abuse, according to a recent article in HR Magazine that reported data from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI).

Several factors foster bullying behavior, including the culture, the personalities drawn to a particular line of work, and how the organization is structured.

Bullying often occurs in workplace cultures where highly powerful people or those with high-profile jobs work alongside those with lower status. Health care, education and public service industries lend themselves to bullying behavior, according to a survey by the WBI. Approximately one third of those who leave hospitals do so because of bullying or a toxic workplace.

These industries often promote their best and brightest into managerial jobs for which they are not suited, says Michael B. Spring, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Managers lacking the interpersonal skills of listening, coaching, effective training and caring for workers tend to supervise aggressively to mask their incompetence.

What is bullying behavior? Here’s a list provided by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
•    Constant and unfair criticism.
•    Excessive teasing.
•    Yelling, shouting and screaming.
•    Insults and behind-the-back put-downs.
•    Hostile glares and other intimidating gestures.
•    Malicious gossip.
•    Monopolizing supplies and other resources.
•    Aggressive e-mails or notes.
•    Overt threats, aggression or violence.

So what do you do about bullies?

Confront them. Most don’t know they’re bullies. Many think because they’ve always behaved a certain way that their current behavior is acceptable. And why not? Silence is consent, right?

Look at your culture. Why is it producing bullies? What are the root causes of the bullying culture? Create a specific plan to eliminate the root causes–not the symptoms.

Document the bullying and do something about it. Communicate clearly that bullying won’t be tolerated. Terminate a known bully and communicate what and why you terminated the bully. Communicate that we will not tolerate bullies. It’s unkind to people. It’s unacceptable to foster a culture that can only hurt morale and performance.

Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, told me that he was forced to make a tough call with a senior leader on his team. To win in the GE culture, one had to achieve financial goals and live the GE values.  Jack told me that one of his leaders thought he could get away with hitting his financial goals but not living the GE values. Jack said he had to walk the talk.

After terminating the person who was only hitting financial goals, the rest of the team got the message: Jack’s serious about this. The “GE Way” produced many great leaders over the years, but Jack Welch had to be willing to set an example.

Key Takeaway: Bullies hurt people and the organization. Documenting bad behavior will only go so far.  Sometimes extreme measures are needed to make a point.  Great leaders are willing to do it. They walk the talk.

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