Bully In The Workplace

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Is your boss a bully?

Ever since I was in grade school, I had a reputation for standing up to bullies; those mean-spirited individuals that push people around and try to always get their way through coercion, intimidation or violence. I never backed down to bullies. In fact, when someone would begin to act like a bully, I was usually right there to challenge them, to call them out and to be ready to dodge the punch when it came.

I was not a fighter although not afraid of a fight, so I typically pushed back with my words, sometimes using logic, sometimes using persuasion and sometimes, bullying right back and showing them that I was not going to back down. And if the fist came, I was pretty good at throwing them into one of my big-time wrestling submission holds until they calmed down!

In school, often the biggest bullies were the teachers and again, I became adept at using my words to stand up to them and call them out on their bad behavior. One such individual was my high school math teacher. After having several confrontations and conflicts throughout the school year, including a fight in a student/teacher hockey game, he falsified my final exam mark, lowering my math mark to a point that would have prevented me from being accepted into engineering school.

Trying to use your position of authority to alter the trajectory of someone’s life (in a negative way) is low but that is what bullies do when you stand up to them. They quickly drop all facades of values and ethics and focus on how they can get revenge.

I called him out on it and made him pull my final exam (we weren’t given a copy of the final exam, so he could reuse the same test year after year after year). Buried in a 3-foot stack of exams in his locker, we eventually found it and surprise, surprise, my mark was 85%, not the 55% he had recorded on my final report. If I had been too afraid or intimidated by him to not call him out and demand to see my final exam mark, my life would have been very different.

Of course, if I had never stood up him, he would not have sought revenge against me.

Standing up to bullies is not easy or without its cost, but if we don’t stand up to them, they take over and do what’s good for them with little regard for others.

They degrade the values and ethics of our organizations and our society and they enable others to become bullies, further degrading our ability to create win-win solutions to our challenges.

When I graduated and began my career in engineering and project management, I found the workplace was filled with bullies who had landed in a new home after graduating from high school, college or university. But unlike the schoolyard bullies, who really had no power over you, workplace bullies had position, power, and authority over others and used that position of authority to unduly influence decisions to meet their needs regardless of the negative impacts to individual stakeholders or even the company, as long as they benefited.

My ability to push back was severely limited. It seems in the workplace, truth, circumstance and due diligence are meaningless concepts if the bullies are in a position of authority or are well connected to the organizational leadership. No amount of negotiation, persuasion or logic could sway them from their course of retribution. They didn’t let simple things like facts get in the way of the punishment that they would eventually deliver.

That inability to stand up to workplace bullies severely affected me in the early years of my career.

I would get increasingly frustrated with directives and orders that did not take the needs of others into consideration. I have always been strong in relationship building so if I let the people down whom I was supposed to be serving, I couldn’t live with myself.

Other times, my managers imposed unworkable solutions and then criticized and blamed me when what they told me to do was wrong. Or worse yet, reprimanded me for doing something different than they told me even though what I did worked and was the right thing to do.

I knew I could not survive in a workplace where bullying was the norm and at several points in my career considered simply walking away from it all. I certainly walked away from many of them (and was fired from several others) but always ended up somewhere else that seemed an awful lot like the place I had left.

When I started to manage my own projects, I figured that was my chance to get ahead of the bullies and not let them try to take over. To do that, I met with key stakeholders and ensured that their needs were documented. I ran responsibility workshops, so we had clarity on who would be doing what and what the limits of those responsibilities were. I marked up drawings to indicate what real estate was being allocated to various stakeholders during certain times of the construction project. I used the company’s values statement to reinforce appropriate behavior and asked for support from the powers that be when people didn’t live up to those values.

I definitely had some success with my approach in the early days but still recognized that mean-spirited micromanagers and workplace bullies often didn’t follow the rules or espoused values and were never reprimanded for it.

My management team simply did not have the authority (or the backbone) to deal with it and impose consequences when people didn’t live up to the team’s expectations.

On a subsequent project, I was able to isolate my team from the rest of the organization and again my goal was to create an inspiring work environment that gave them the clarity of purpose, task, and process they needed to take ownership of their responsibilities. But this time, I included a high-performance team process that ensured that people were committed to the vision of the organization, to the goals of the project, to the needs and expectations of the client, and to each other; understanding that we would succeed together or fail together.

I was not able to turn mean-spirited people into collaborative do-gooders, but I was able to get most of my team to not only buy-into the approach but embrace it as their own. That left a couple outliers who thought my approach was “a waste of time”. I have since found that the “waste of time” refrain is a consistent theme with bullies and micromanagers who thrive in a more chaotic, less planned work environment.

It turns out, a strong team culture is the greatest deterrent to workplace bullying and poor performance!

By creating clarity on who was responsible for what I was able to set boundaries for responsibilities and get agreement on who their customers and stakeholders were, including identifying their needs and expectations.

One of the outliers was my electrical lead who was notorious for doing things how he wanted them and displaying an arrogance that challenged anyone who questioned his approach, even if that approach was clearly in violation of the customer’s or team members expectations.

During the early stages of the project, he had provided the material list on which part of our project cost estimate was based, and my expectation was that he would stand behind the material list by signing off on the final estimate. (btw: this person had a reputation for making up initial material lists and then making massive changes to it when the design was finalized, resulting in significant cost increases on most of his projects).

He refused, claiming that he could not be responsible for the pricing in the estimate. I completely agreed and acknowledged that my expectation was that his sign off meant that he agreed only with the materials quantities within the estimate, not the final cost of those items. But he still refused and then walked off my project declaring that he could not work for a tyrant like me (bullies often accuse others of being bullies when people stand up to them).

And although his departure created many challenges, it also created opportunities to improve the relationship with the client. They were frustrated with his tendency to ignore their requests and were delighted that he had walked and so was I.

It was much easier to maintain a cohesive team without people who refused to be accountable to the client and our team.

But the departure of my electrical lead raised a flag to our company’s executive team. They questioned why a 35-year guy, who they had never had a problem with, walked off my team? There had to be something wrong with Pete! They began questioning people on my team looking for faults and reasons to terminate me. But my team stood behind me and suggested I was doing a great job.

They then went to the client, suggesting I be terminated as my project was clearly failing, the proof of which was the departure of the electrical lead. The client listened to their concerns then made a clear statement to our company ownership, “Terminate Pete and we terminate the contract!” end of conversation. One of my greatest learnings in project management is to make sure your team and your client trusts you and know that you are looking out for their best interests. It’s often the only protection you have from the bullies within your own organization.

Because I was able to stand up for our team and the bigger vision that we held, I gained tremendous credibility, and the reward for that was an increasing willingness to live up to the team processes that I had integrated. They began to challenge each other when their own needs and expectations were not being met or when a teammate wasn’t living up to their commitments. People were delivering more, and they were demanding more. But they did it in a collaborative way, using positive language to raise their concerns and verbalize how the breakdown would impact them in terms of their own commitments.

We always stayed positive and supportive with a clear focus on the goals of the project and the team.

And because I was able to chase the bullies off my team, I was able to get people to be more committed to success and accountable to others. I was able to fix the broken document management system which then resulted in field rework being reduced by 95%. I was able to build trust with my teammates and create a powerful collaborative team that our client also trusted. They then gave us the space we needed to be innovative in our design resulting in a final product that not only met the service requirements of the project but developed a great sense of buy-in and commitment by the people in Operations and Maintenance because their needs and expectations had been factored into the design.

Far too many organizations use the “one throat to choke” approach to accountability, meaning that one person is responsible for the work of many.

As a result, the many take no responsibility or ownership, they are simply doing what they have been told. Micromanagers dictate decisions, feeling they are the ones who will be punished if things go wrong. Sadly, being removed from the work face, they often don’t understand the complexity of the situation or the needs of the customer or stakeholders and end up with self-serving solutions that create chaos and reduce value for other stakeholders.

Accountability is a much more powerful tool, if we move upstream.

Stop focusing on the one throat to choke when things go wrong and instead focus on the quality, consistency, and precision of interactions within your team as an early indicator of potential breakdowns with your customers. If the front-line employee is handed something that does not meet their needs and will not meet the needs of the customer, they must either a) ask the other employee to rework the item; b) rework the previous employees work themselves, or c) pass on the mistake.

An accountable culture would push the rework back to the originator and would ask for ways to prevent the deviation from occurring again. The owner of the work must then be empowered by their management team to solve the problem and implement the solution that would prevent them from suffering from poor quality again.

Many organization’s accountability breaks down when they fail to provide the resources necessary to fix the problems, leaving the person doing the task feeling no accountability to their stakeholders for the inferior quality of the work.

Moving to a culture of accountability is the single biggest decision an organization can make to go from good to great.

And it’s likely the easiest organizational change you will take on because the vast majority of your people will support the transformation, with the possible exception of some of the heroes, bullies, and micro-managers. By providing clarity to my team on my needs and expectations, and implementing quality assurance processes to monitor them, I was able to able to nip bully behavior in the bud, before it could have lasting negative impacts on the success of my project.

Most importantly, accountability must start at the top. If upper management is fuzzy on their responsibilities, that fuzziness grows as you descend the organizational chart, resulting in increasing levels of chaos, frustration, and incivility. If you simply try imposing accountability on your staff without being accountable yourself, accountability, and results, will not improve.

Many organizations are using bolt-on policies to address human resource issues, but they often have little effect if they do not address the underlying issues of workplace bullying; poor accountability.

Organizations can beat workplace bullying, but they must be willing to adopt an accountable culture. 

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