Bullied Management Teams
Bullied Management Teams
Reverse Bullying: Management Teams Deserve Protection Too
In her 20 years tenure as an employee, Brenda had firmly established her reputation as a bully. No one dared challenge her. She didnt hesitate to address her manager using foul language. Much of the time, she did whatever she wanted to do, whenever she wanted to do it. She often used her power as union steward to stomp out of management-union meetings, complete with door-slamming. Her influence was such that one employee openly chose Brenda as an office mate, claiming Brenda provided her with better `protection than could her own manager.
Over the years management had tried numerous approaches to dealing with this problem, to no avail. They transferred her from one department to another. They changed her managers. They initiated progressive discipline, to which she responded with grievances and harassment complaints. They changed her role description. By the time I arrived on the scene as a consultant, the management team was helpless, intimidated and demoralized.
The dynamic of a management group that is held hostage by one or two powerful bullying individuals is not unique to this organization. You may have encountered it yourself in your travels. And yet, few are willing to label the problem for what it is: a bullied management team. Its a dirty little secret that no one is willing to speak about as such.
Interestingly, this phenomenon often occurs in organizations where management is well intended, gracious and even progressive. Such managements assume that others will naturally mirror their own values and behaviours. Other times, it could be an unfocused management team or one that is preoccupied with real-life survival matters and views this as a lower priority. Like a heat-seeking missile, the bullies takes advantage of the space that management creates and lodge themselves securely where they can create extensive havoc.
Paths to Solutions
By the time management realizes that it needs to shift its thinking in order to resolve the problem once and for all, the problem has often gotten to the point of affecting morale, customer service, retention and engagement. The recognition that something significantly different has to happen usually occurs only when someone with a fresh perspective (a new management team member or an outside consultant) enters the picture and is able to see how stuck the system is and then offer fresh solutions.
Here are a number of options to free the management team of the bullying and, along with it, improve overall organizational health:
1. Call a spade a spade. Recognize the problem for what it is: it is a bully-in-the-making or a fully-blown bullying situation which has resulted in management intimidation. This is not a headache requiring Tyleno, it is a malignant tumour that requires all-out measures. Instead of classifying the problem as a personality issue or mere `incivility`, label it as bullying and take a decisive approach.
2. Get all leaders on board. Anyone in management whose people interface with the bullys activities even marginally needs to be on board, share the determination to take action and get regular updates. Furthermore, the direct manager needs extra support from cohorts.
3. Cut your losses. If you need to fire the person, go ahead and do it. In the same way that battered wives or bullied individuals fear upsetting the bully, so do bullied management teams offer convoluted answers when posed with the question why dont you simply fire this person and pay them whatever it costs. This fear of firing is particularly noticeable in unionized environments, even though dismissal can be done in these contexts as well.
4. Develop a comprehensive approach to solving the problem. Bullied management teams mistakenly perceive the problem as a one-person concern instead of an all-organizational threat. However, key to solving the problem is developing a multi-pronged approach that works on multiple levels. For example:
a. Re-commit to your core organizational values, which often include concepts like Respect, Integrity, Community or Diversity. Use these values to develop the determination necessary to deal with the problem and then leverage them in all your interventions.
b. Create a new and stringent Respect-Harassment policy and roll it out with a big splash. Bring in harassment training for management and employees and then publicly declare that from now on all respect-related matters will be treated with utmost sternness.
c. Appoint a strong direct manager that will be willing and able to execute the new approach fairly and determinedly.
d. Examine the undercurrent culture: what is it about our culture that enables people to behave in this way? How have management practices contributed to the problem? What do people believe about who we are, and whats okay or not okay to do here, that would sustain this problem behaviour? You may be able to do this on your own or you may need the help of a trusted outsider to help sort these issues and ensure that history does not repeat itself.
e. Create Team Operating Agreements where team members commit to consensual ways of treating each other. This is highly effective in mobilizing the silent majority who has suffered in the situation but had no practical organizational tools to rely on.
f. Rethink your approach to union issues. In many cases, the bully abuses a union position he or she holds or is adept at misusing union-based tools to their advantage. In these cases, a new union strategy is crucial to solving the problem.
As to Brenda, that management team used a combination of the above interventions, eventually leading to her departure. Within several months, Brendas departure along with the other interventions resulted in numerous positive ripple effects, some of which were not originally anticipated. In hindsight, it turned out to be a pivotal experience for all.
by Sharon Bar-David