Bullies as Leaders

The Potential Effects of a Lack of Civility in Organizations
How you treat people means everything – whether they will trust you, build relationships with you, follow you, support you, and work hard for you or not. 
Many leaders know that incivility is costly, but they don’t always recognize just how much civility pays or how to make it happen. 
(From Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace by Christine Porath, 2016)

I begin with a story that is too familiar today. It is about a woman named Sara who was hired as a leader in a newly developed department for a small private company. It was a sought after position and she felt very grateful to have been chosen for this opportunity. Her mandate was to implement a new program that supported training and leadership. It was one of her life’s dreams to work for this company.

During the hiring process, John, who was to become her new supervisor, was supportive of her hire and spoke with appreciation of her ability to contribute to the company. He said that he was excited to have her on board and that they would work well together to support this new initiative. Sara very much looked forward to beginning her new role at this company under John’s leadership.

On her first morning of work, Sara walked into an empty office. There wasn’t anyone around so she phoned John on his cell. He told her he was busy and had just left a meeting. Sara detected a bit of irritation in his voice. It was not the welcome that she had hoped for, but Sara is a realistic person so she chalked it up to John having a busy day and needing to take his lunch break.

Unfortunately, this treatment foreshadowed what was to come. Over the next few months, several other instances occurred and Sara noticed that John acted much differently than she would have expected from her first impressions of him. On one occasion, she was even threatened by John. He said that if she didn’t make him look good in this department there would be hell to pay.

In another instance, Joan in Human Resources asked Sara to pass on a message to John. He told Sara that she should not be talking to the staff in Human Resources about a current project involving their department. John stated that going behind his back wouldn’t be tolerated. On a third occasion, in a meeting where Sara was being asked to do some committee work, John said that he heard a laugh from her coworkers and that they were making fun of her.

John undermined her authority in the presence of direct reports. On a number of occasions, he interrupted meetings with these direct reports by calling Sara out into the hallway. He would then use a loud voice to go over issues that he felt were of dire importance.

Sara looked to find support within the company, but the culture was one of don’t talk, don’t tell. Her isolation, impacted by John, did not lend itself to reaching out inside of the company. So she chose to seek counsel from an outside person who was a reputable chartered psychologist. Sara’s health faltered and after careful counseling and consideration, she resigned from the company within a year. 

The bullying and harassment that Sara experienced in this company had a pervasive and lasting impact on her. Though, with the ongoing support of the very skillful psychologist and a certified executive coach, Sara moved on to other positions where she continued to contribute well.

A year later, due to the bullying and harassment with subsequent employees, John was let go from the company. John’s supervisor was also let go.  This is one example of how bullying and harassment can impact an individual and a company. Needless to say, there is a huge cost to bullying and harassment of this nature.

What is the alternative? Civility and humility are offered as ways to create workplaces where people thrive. Civility and humility in leaders seems to be in the news often these days.

In a global marketplace where problems are increasingly complex it becomes key to seek these traits. That’s why Google’s SVP of People Operations, Lazlo Bock, says humility is one of the traits he’s looking for in new hires. “Your end goal,” explained Bock, “is what can we do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.” And it is not just humility in creating space for others to contribute, says Bock—it’s “intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn.” (From: The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders, HBR, Prime & Salib)

Yet, there has been a reported decline in civility in the workplace.

There has been a decline in civility in the workplace, including the growth of bullying. Christine Porath, Georgetown University business professor wrote a piece in The New York Times about the decline of civility in the workplace: “A quarter of those I surveyed in l998 reported that they were treated rudely at work at least once week…That figure rose to nearly half in 2005, then to just over half in 2011.” In my article in Psychology Today,“The Rise of Incivility and Bullying in America,”  “Repeated public opinion polls have voiced the concern of Americans over the erosion of civility in government, business, media and social media. The most recent poll by Weber Shandwick, reported that 65% of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem that has worsened during the financial crisis and recession. What’s even more distressing is that nearly 50% of those surveyed said they were withdrawing from the basic tenants of democracy—government and politics—because of incivility and bullying.” (From: The Rise of Toxic Leadership and Toxic Workplaces: We Are Hypocrites About the Leaders We Want and Those We Choose, in Psychology Today, Williams)

Research indicates that that the bottom line is impacted by positively when a humble and honest leader is in place of CEO.

Fred Kiel, head of the executive development firm KRW international, recently studied 84 CEOs and more than 8,000 of their employees over the course of seven years. The results, written up in the Kiel’s recent book Return on Character  found that people worked harder and more happily when they felt valued and respected. So-called “character-driven” CEOs who possess four virtues—integrity, compassion, forgiveness, and accountability—lead companies whose returns on assets are five times larger than those of executives who are more self-centered, he found. (From: The Rise of Toxic Leadership and Toxic Workplaces: We Are Hypocrites About the Leaders We Want and Those We Choose, in Psychology Today, Williams)

So, why do we continue to hear stories like Sara’s? What biases are in place when leaders, such as these, are hired? Watch for my next article which will highlight research-based explanations that show why the pattern of incivility in leading is often repeated.

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] had much opportunity to establish relationships with her colleagues. She came to realize that her supervisor might be bullying her, but felt isolated and unsure of how to act on her […]

  2. […] 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. […]

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