Bullies as Leaders Part II

Why Bullies Are Hired

“At the beginning of my career, I scored what I thought was my dream job, helping a global athletic brand launch a sports academy. As I soon discovered, I had walked into an uncivil work culture where bullying, rudeness and other forms of incivility ran rampant. The actions of a narcissistic, dictatorial boss trickled down through the ranks. Employees felt disconnected and disengaged. Some intentionally sabotaged the organization, stealing supplies and equipment, padding their time cards with hours they hadn’t worked and charging personal items to their expense accounts. Many took out their frustrations on others, barking orders at colleagues, making snide remarks to customers, and failing to pitch in like good teammates do. Many talented people left, with some joining competing businesses. I was one of them. 

I’d like to say that experience left me unscathed, but that wouldn’t be true. I was a strong person (or so I thought); after all, I was a two-sport college athlete at a Division I school. My colleagues were resilient as well — not the type of people who would wilt easily when challenged. Yet many of us were depleted after just a few months of working in a hostile environment. We quickly became husks of our former selves.”  (Porath, 2015, p. 2)

Last time, I shared a story about Sara. Like the women in the quote above, Sara was in a difficult spot. She had taken a new position in an organization and she was very excited about it. Shortly after she began working there, her new boss, who had been supportive and charismatic in her interviews, began bullying her.

The bullying was severe and unrelenting and took a deep toll on Sara’s professional and personal being. In the end, the behaviour cost the organization three people: Sara, her leader and her leader’s supervisor. So, why do we continue to hear stories like Sara’s?

There are many complex reasons for why the hiring of bullies happens. Research is showing us that the pattern of incivility in leading is often repeated and on the rise.(See: The Rise of Toxic Leadership and Toxic Workplaces: We Are Hypocrites About the Leaders We Want and Those We Choose, in Psychology Today, Williams)

With this in mind, what biases are in place when leaders, such as this, are hired? One speculation may be found in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “If Humble Leaders Make the Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall for Charismatic Narcissists?” (Mayo, 2017) Being perceived as arrogant, narcissistic individuals radiate an image of a prototypically effective leader and it takes time for others to see that the early signals of competence are not realized. (Mayo, 2017, HBR, source). As well, high levels of anxiety make us hungry for charisma (Mayo, 2017).

Another speculation is found in the book “Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both”. Galinsky and Schweitzer (2015) present research that supports the reality, that in times of threat, we tend to turn towards hierarchies like the military and the Catholic Church. In other words, we tend to seek psychological comfort in times of stress, and we seek greater top down leadership for safety and security when we are in times of economic upheaval and declining per capita income (Galinsky & Schweitzer, 2015).

For the first time in Canada, there are now potential consequences for bullying and harassment. In December of 2016, an employee has had his illness and subsequent death linked to workplace bullying and harassment, as ruled by the Workers Compensation Board. This is reported to be the first case in Canada that has linked workplace bullying or harassment to an employee’s death… In documents filed in the case by Lisa Donovan’s lawyer, Hendricken’s treatment of Eric Donovan was described as “demeaning, conflictual, rude and hostile personal comments, most of which were in the presence of co-workers and clients.” (Read the article)

The character in our story, Sara, recognized the bullying and took steps to protect herself and her health. Not everyone can access the needed supports in time. Not everyone recognizes the toll that bullying is taking on them in time. It is very difficult and taxing. The data is clear, perpetuating and being entrenched in a culture of bullying has enormous costs for the health and wellbeing of individuals and of organizations which, as research is showing, also very significantly impacts the bottom line.

Returning to our story about Sara, we see that she was fortunate to have the resources and support that she needed at a time when she needed them the most. It was difficult for Sara to come to terms with the bullying, to become aware of the abuse and to deal with the loss of what she thought was going to be a dream job, as well as gathering the strength to rally up enough energy to deal with a very difficult situation. For a while, Sara blamed herself. But through her strong support network she eventually leapt to action and got out of this abusive situation. She had her own life experience and the support of many very capable and caring family members and professionals. 

How do we support each other to seek out these resources when there is a need for them? A related and arguably more important question is, what strategies might we use to find ways of supporting the civility and humility of leaders and thus preventing potential leadership bullying and harassment in workplaces?  This will be discussed in the next article.


Galinsky, A. & Schweitzer, M. (2015). Friend & foe: When to cooperate, when to compete, and how to succeed at both. New York: Crown Business.

Mayo, M. (2017). If Humble Leaders Make the Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall for Charismatic Narcissists?

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