Toxic bosses Part 3

Over the last two weeks, we’ve considered how to recognise and survive working for control freaks, hollow superstars, wily politicians and narcissists. This week it’s how to survive working for dictators and bullies. They all prove boss is a four-letter word.

Dictators take being the boss into the stratosphere. They take no questions and give no explanations. They issue orders and tell you what to do – even when they don’t need to. They play their cards close to their chests, they solve your problems and everyone else’s problems, too, and they make all the decision themselves – even those you’d like to be involved in and could help with.

Some dictators simply love the sound of their own voice. Some can’t bring themselves to trust their followers – any of them – even though their poor followers probably are trustworthy. In the minds of dictators, their only option is to continually drive people and push them hard to do an honest day’s work.

Here are the two secrets to working for dictators:

  1. Remember that their ‘don’t trust anyone’ view of the world is their problem, not yours.
  2. Don’t give into the temptation to become as lazy and irresponsible as they seem to believe you are and just sit back and let the dictator do all your thinking for you.

The best thing to do, I think, is to keep your head down, do your work, and look for a new leader who doesn’t turn ‘boss’ into a four-letter word.

I’ve saved the most toxic boss of all until last – the bully. Bullies pick on one or two of their weaker followers and entertain themselves by abusing, belittling and berating them, assigning them impossible tasks with ridiculous time constraints and generally setting them up to fail.

And here’s the rub – to everyone else, bullies are often charming, and clever enough to hide their bullying ways from everyone but their victims. In fact, people usually find it hard to believe that a bully boss really does intimidate, terrorise and persecute anyone. That’s what makes them so dangerous.

If anyone out there is the victim of a bully boss, do not be conned into believing that you’re the failure your boss is making you out to be. Keep a record of the bullying treatment you receive (dates, times, locations, what was said, anyone else who was present). These records can help you see, clearly and objectively, that you’re not to blame and you may be able to use these records as proof of your boss’s toxic behaviour towards you.

My suggestion is that you find another leader as fast as you can, someone who inspires you and helps you achieve feats you never knew you could achieve. Look for someone who is talented and has high, but realistic, standards, who will give you constructive feedback, set challenging targets and expect a lot of good work from you. Above all, look for a leader who makes you feel energised and confident.

(I trust you didn’t recognise any of the characteristics of toxic leaders we’ve discussed over the last three posts in yourself. If you did, you know what to do. Change your ways and learn to be a real leader-manager.)


Get my what out?!!

It seems a supervisor at IBM in Australia thinks a good way to increase sales is for women sales reps to ‘get their boobies out’ and a good way to motivate female sales reps is to sexually harass and bully them. The details are far too tacky to go into here and make for pretty distasteful reading (but if you really want to read the dirt, check it out here and here). When the victim spoke to management about it, she claims she was told to get back to work and never mention the allegations again.

Where are corporate dignity policies when employees need them? Not to mention management support.

The victim successfully sued IBM for $1.1m. Her manager-with-the-bad-taste eventually left IBM and is now employed elsewhere as a sales manager.

Discussion questions

Can you state your organisation’s procedure and the steps to take should an employee make an allegation of harassment?

The ‘bad apple effect’

The importance of developing and maintaining a strong team culture that supports your organisation’s vision and values and strives for high productivity can’t be over-stressed. Part of that is your duty to turn around ‘bad apples’. When you can’t ‘freshen them up’ them, you want to remove them before they sour the rest of your team.

Let’s call this the ‘bad apple effect’: It’s a lot harder than you probably think to say ‘No’ to someone who eggs you on, even when you’re being prodded to do something you know isn’t right.

Have you heard of Stanley Milgram’s famous, actually infamous, experiment? (If not, check it out here; it’s chilling reading.) Doing what you’re told, as in the Milgram experiment, is sometimes referred to as the ‘white coat effect’ or the ‘authority effect’.

But it isn’t only authority figures we find it hard to say ‘No’ to. We don’t want to say ‘No’ to colleagues and friends, either; heck, it’s even hard to say ‘No’ to complete strangers!

A series of studies published in an article in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (9 Dec. 2013), concluded that instigators of undesirable behaviour have a huge influence on others and can easily persuade them into acting unethically, such as telling a lie, committing vandalism and taking office supplies home for personal use.

(Given that people are so easily influenced to commit undesirable acts, this research has implications for bullying as well as building productive teams.)

The effect of social pressure and the reluctance to say ‘No’ may even have contributed to the global financial crisis. In 2007 Moody’s gave a poor rating to a group of securities underwritten by Countrywide Financial, the largest mortgage lender in the US; Countrywide complained the assessment was too tough and Moody’s changed its rating the very next day, even though no new information had come to light. It seems the Moody’s representative felt pressured to acquiesce to Countrywide’s request to soften its rating, with the devastating consequences to the US housing market and the world’s economy that we’re all familiar with.

It’s far easier (about twice as easy, according to these experiments) than we think for one person to persuade another to engage in inappropriate behaviour. And it’s easier than we think for one person to change a team norm and value system for the worse. Social pressure is powerful, and ‘bad apples’ pose risks that you need to address.

Discussion questions

How do you deal with negative influencers in your team? Perhaps you have witnessed the ‘bad apple’ effect yourself.

‘Then Get Out’

In June, Lieutenant General David Morrison addressed the Australian public about unacceptable conduct and in particular, conduct that demeans, exploits or humiliates their colleagues. The address was prompted by NSW police and military investigations into a group of male officers and non-commissioned officers whose conduct has brought the Australian Army into disrepute. Lieutenant General Morrison made it brutally clear that those who think that this type of behaviour is “OK … have no place in this army”. The Army must be an inclusive organisation in which every member can reach their potential, he said.

If that does not suit you, then get out.

Everyone, he said, is responsible for the culture and reputation of the Army and its working environment.

If you become aware of any individual degrading another, then show moral courage and take a stand against it.   I will be ruthless in ridding the Army of people who cannot live up to its values …  The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

Discussion questions:

  • How important do you think it is that the senior person in an organisation takes a strong stand about behaviour that is, and is not, acceptable?
  • To what degree is every person in an organisation responsible for its culture and reputation, and its working environment?
  • As a leader, what steps can you take to make clear the behaviour you want to see in your team and to develop its culture?
  • In what ways can you and your team protect the reputation of your organisation and its working environment?

Action against bullying

Last month a National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence took place in Australia. Workplace bullying is a growing concern but it is something that each of us can take action against.

Kate Carnell, CEO of Beyondblue, suggests following the mantra: ‘If you see it, call it’, because when you don’t, you could be sending the message that bullying behaviour is ok.

Clearly something needs to be done to make bullies understand their behaviour is unacceptable; UMR Research says that one in three workers have been bullied at work. Micromanaging unfairly, taking credit for someone else’s work or ideas, blaming someone else for your mistakes, verbal abuse and unjustified criticism are the main forms of workplace bullying.

Discussion questions

How do you know whether someone is being bullied in your work team by another team member? How sure are you that some of your actions or comments could not be interpreted as unfair or even bullying?

Federal inquiry into bullying

The federal inquiry into bullying found that workplace bullying has profound effects on peoples’ health and their work and personal lives. Bullying costs the country dearly, too. According to the productivity commission, we lose between $6 billion and $36 billion annually (a pretty wide gap!)

In late November, the House of Representatives’ Standing Committee on Education and Employment released its report into bullying, Workplace Bullying: We just want it to stop. The report makes 23 recommendations, including setting up a national service to advise on what constitutes bullying and how to deal with it. This service should also include a hotline for both employees and employers to find out how to prevent and resolve bullying, provide online training packages for employers, and provide on-site help for workplaces where bullying is known to be rife. The report also recommended stronger legislation and regulatory frameworks, including making serious bullying a criminal offence.

Recommended actions for business include improving workplace cultures and following the draft Code of Practice: Managing the Risk of Workplace Bullying.

Discussion questions

What is your organisation’s policy on bullying? Do you know what to do if someone complains they’re being bullied? Can you recognise the signs of bullying?