Who is responsible for the workplace bully’s actions?
Two people. First and most obvious, the bully. The second and not as obvious: the leader who tolerates the behavior in the first place.
As an example, let me parallel a baseball culture story.
Manny Ramirez, who played over 19 seasons in professional baseball, was often characterized in his erratic – and many times detrimental to the team – behavior as “Manny being Manny.”
Here was a professional ball player, an All-Star, batting and World Series champion, being dismissed in his behavior. Why? Because that was just who he was?
I would posit that it was because he got results. If he was a marginal player, his behavior may have relegated him to the minor leagues or out of baseball far sooner than his 19 years served him.
While Manny was not a bully in the workplace, or ballclub, how many bullies are allowed to exist because they get results? It’s a problem that points to the failings of leaders around them as it does the bullies themselves.
A quote by Gruenter and Whitaker explains the culture of leadership allowing bullying behaviors quite well:
The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.
A few years ago, Christine Comaford wrote an excellent article for Forbes that details how leaders in many organizations enable these workplace bullies to exist and gain a “power over” foothold in an organization.
Her initial call to leaders about this problem was quite direct and simple: “It’s time to stop.”
In another Forbes post from January 2020, Heidi Lynne Kurter reveals a statistic that at least 24% of employees feel that their leaders are ignoring workplace bullies and sweeping it under the rug.
And it makes one wonder what the causes are that lead to a toleration and indifference to the workplace bully in an organization.
There are many methods to address bullying and change the culture of tolerated behavior, but in order to identify WHAT needs to change, we need to acknowledge WHY it exists in the first place.
Ask yourself the following questions and examine your response:
- Are you afraid to confront the bully?
- Do you look at the performance of the ones(s) bringing up the bully’s behavior and justify that their issues are worse?
- Do you discount anyone from the front lines because they are not top leadership and don’t understand what’s at stake in the organization?
- Are you paralyzed because you’ve let it go on too long, and what will people think of your leadership ability?
- Are you worried your metrics will be impacted negatively by letting the high performing bully go?
- Is the bully a good friend of yours, someone you hired or other attachment that will reflect adversely on you personally?
- Do you feel your culture is good, except for this individual(s)?
When you realize the internal reasons why you’ve balked at managing the behavior of the bullies in your organization, then you’ve started to identify how you as a leader can take positive and affirmative steps towards correcting or rooting out this type of toxic behavior.
A CEO can tell their employees that it pains them to hear that bullying exists across their company, but acknowledgement alone won’t stop it. There remains a decision to not allow “bullies being bullies” because their performance in getting results is otherwise stellar.
An Australian CEO was quoted in an article for Human Resources Director on how he changes culture in his organizations:
“My first-hand experience as a CEO, where I’ve managed a national, multi-sited workforce of thousands of employees, is that for any business to perform at its best, they need to create a culture that rejects the notion and behaviours of humiliation, intimidation and threats,” he said.
“No matter how large the organisation is, every CEO can put a greater emphasis on this, and introduce measures beyond their bullying policy and procedures. A policy is no longer enough.”
Are the gains of rankings, profits, market dominance and shares really worth allowing that bully and their behavior to exist in your culture?
As a leader, that choice is yours to make, and will directly impact the choices your employees will make in response. What will you choose to tolerate?
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Paul LaRue is the creator of The UPwards Leader and Instigator for Lead Change Group. His background in senior leadership, strategic planning, culture change, and people and organizational development gives him unique insight into the workings of successful organizations. Paul has given speeches and training sessions for many public and private entities and stresses the virtue of a culture that centers around core values and character in leadership.