Alleged bullying at a high level has been much in the news in the last week or so.
We often only think of bullying in connection with the more junior and most vulnerable in the organisation. Not so. Over the last six months I have seen a few breathtaking instances of bullying at very senior levels. I was present with one CEO when the chairman addressed him as if he were a naughty schoolboy. The Chairman’s behaviour was inappropriate and disastrous. The chap in question had always triumphed in his roles up to this point. The impact of that treatment in terms of de-motivation was enormous and some months later the only course of action was to resign in the face of ongoing interference. What effect did this have on performance and share price? People at this level are unlikely to come forward and talk openly about their experiences. They are going to take action and move away to a position where they can make a difference without suffering this behaviour. Who was in a position to feedback to the bullying Chairman that this was not an effective motivational technique? The cost of the leaving package and the search for the replacement are expensive and wasteful. From the human side it is astonishing that these situations go on all the time. Bullying can often be a pattern throughout an organisation. At one client, we discovered that everyone from the director down shouted at their direct reports. No-one had previously questioned the high turnover rate of PAs – they had just assumed that was what PAs were like! In fact they were the braver ones who decided not to stick it any longer and just leave. In another instance, a client brought in as COO to effect much needed change in a traditional organisation, was subjected to an invidious and unpleasant smear campaign leading to a trumped up charge of alleged gross misconduct. His lawyers saw it as a thinly veiled vendetta and conspiracy and triumphed over the settlement they won for him. The root of the issues seemed to be that people were resistant to the change he was working on. He was consulting and discussing with them but no-one was prepared to say anything to his face. His predecessor had been subjected to similar behaviour and had left as a result of the stress he experienced. These organisations talk about our kind of interventions as ‘soft’ when actually many human interactions are very hard indeed! This is a recurring theme – no-one has the tricky, courageous conversations, allowing things to escalate to an invidious level, costing vast amounts in lost time, motivation and cash. Psychological research has shown that bullies behave the way they do because it works, it’s fast and it is fun! If you want them to change you have to demonstrate that other approaches are just as effective while being less destructive for the business. If bullying is going on at the top, then it may be endemic to the organisation. Time to stop the waste through developing more effective leadership?