10 Nov 2022

Bullying Bosses

Bullying comes in many forms – from playground torments to insidious workplace abuse. One of the worst manifestations is when a person who holds a position of power and authority abuses their status to bully and demean the people who answer to them.

This is performative, public bullying, desired to cause maximum shame and humiliation. It represents a total abandonment of accepted codes of civilised behaviour, and therefore is manifested in socially disinhibited behaviour – loss of temper, rage, anger, foul language – which we are taught from childhood to suppress. The assumption is that the bully can discard social norms with impunity because he/she is in a position of power, and their behaviour becomes a chest-beating powerplay, designed to assert their ‘superior’ status.

These bullies may delude themselves that their abuse is motivational, that they are calling out the shortcomings in their team members, spurring on their underlings to harder work and better performance. They congratulate themselves on being ‘tough bosses’, who make huge demands and expect their team to rise to them.

But they are blind to the fact that they create an atmosphere of stress and anxiety, where every team member lives in dread of becoming the next target. In the short term, this may drive them on to making superhuman efforts in order to avoid becoming the next casualty, but in the long term this is unsustainable. Inspiring fear and dread is not a good way of motivating people, or building a strong team – people work much more effectively if a sense of collaboration and cooperation is nurtured. Eventually team members will be ground down by their boss’s antics and crushed by the constant pressure – they may well leave, taking their expertise with them, or become whistle-blowers, who call out their boss, leading to his/her eventual downfall.

As with all bullying, it is probable that the intemperate behaviour stems from deep-seated anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, which are not acknowledged but instead are masked by a theatrical display of power. People in this position enjoy being feared and are proud of the hatred they inspire. Adult bullies may well have been bullied as children.

It is generally considered that behaviour is bullying if it is humiliating, offensive, intimidating, hostile or degrading and this damaging conduct needs to be called out and remedied wherever it is manifested. Bosses who are accused of bullying behaviour will inevitably defend themselves by asserting that their robust behaviour gets good results; they will probably deride their victim for being thin-skinned and over-sensitive. But their behaviour, especially if it is in public, will have been witnessed by many other people, and if you are making a complaint, it can be very useful to elicit their opinion.

Sometimes the bullying boss will take his or her abuse into the private sphere – haranguing the victim behind closed doors or sending offensive texts or emails. If this happens make a record of what has happened, including examples of offensive remarks, and retain all written evidence. The main priority is to report the problem to a manager, or to Human Resources, and to give them clear instances – and evidence, if it exists – of the behaviour.

It can often be a fine line between a tough boss and an abusive one, but this line must be drawn.

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