Speaking Up About Leaders Who Bully Their Team

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As an executive coach who specializes in coaching leaders who engage in bullying, I get the opportunity to dig deep into the minds of abrasive and aggressive people at work.
It’s a place most HR professionals and leaders don’t venture but I thoroughly enjoy coaching these bullying leaders. They are leaders who’ve lost their way, and I get to bring them back to reality. In turn, everyone who works with the leader benefits.
 

In addition to being lost in leadership, there are several other things bullying leaders have in common:

  • They learned to be a fighter somewhere along the way. They grew up in a rough neighborhood and pulled themselves out of it, they came to America without knowing English and eventually worked their way to a Ph.D., they were the only woman and single parent in their med school classes… Every person I’ve coached has a story about overcoming something major.
  • Their fight has turned into fighting for success at work, and so they are high-performers and highly valued by organizational leaders. That high performance is the reason people who bully are allowed to do so; the CEO is afraid to poke the bear and have them quit.
  • They lack social and emotional intelligence. They know people see them as difficult and frustrating, but they don’t know the depth of the impact they have. That people cry at work or home, see a therapist, or quit because of their behavior is lost on them.
  • The organization facilitates their behavior. Yep, I said it. The organization facilitates the bullying behavior.

Here are two areas of concern I always come across when coaching people who bully.

 
Bad behavior isn’t addressed early on. By the time I take on coaching clients, they’ve already been bullying for some time. With each instance of bullying without repercussions, permission has been given to engage in bullying behavior.
 
Many times, the CEO or HR has had conversations with the leader about their behavior and attempted to help them see the negative impact, but without consequences attached to requests for change, it’s all moot. The leader understands that they should try to be better, and that the organization doesn’t really care if they change.
 
The organization hasn’t set the leader up for success in giving feedback. Every single person I’ve coached got into trouble partly because of the way they were giving feedback. Giving constructive, useful and effective feedback isn’t a skill everyone is born with and every organization should be providing training from the bottom up on doing it well. Leaders who aren’t trained in feedback techniques are more likely to engage in bullying.
 
For example, one leader I coached was frustrated with an employee she saw as not performing, and that started to come through in her communication with him. One day she exploded at him and found herself in the principal’s office (i.e., HR). Through coaching, she was able to learn how to deliver both positive and constructive feedback more consistently and effectively.
 
The organization could’ve saved themselves a lot of trouble by doing that a lot earlier on. This is a common narrative with all my coaching clients.
 

What You Can Do

 
In addition to addressing the individual engaging in bullying, assess what the organization might be doing to facilitate the behavior. Did you address the behavior early on? Have you provided training in delivering feedback?
 
Other risk factors for bullying include high competition, bureaucracy, lack of attention on corporate values, stressful environments, and remote work. Do any of these areas ring a bell for your organization? If so, a good place to start addressing bullying is with your organizational culture.

Join Catherine
 at Speak Up Women on April 30, 2022! Tickets are available now.

Catherine Mattice is a Strategic HR Consultant at Civility Partners and the Award-Winning Author of BACK OFF: A Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying At Work and other resources.
 

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