April 26, 2015 DrK

Bully as Leader: The ‘Dark Side’ of Leadership

Who is the victim?

Chris is a high-ranking social media-marketing director for a fortune 500 company. He was working directly with a senior executive, and meeting with her weekly. It was not going well.

shutterstock_222635503_562x337“It’s just one beating after another. I can’t stand the thought of next week’s meeting. She isn’t at all collaborative, and talks to me like I am a child. I can’t talk to anyone about it because the problem is coming from above. When she gets on a tirade, the mid-managers throw me and my team under the bus to protect their own asses. It’s just a mess.”

What is the problem?

Chris has a textbook bully on his hands. “While the corporate bully may not look or act like the playground thug, the victim’s response in either case is to hunker down and get out of the way.”

Here is the vicious cycle that gets set up:

  1. Chris volunteers a suggestion, or proposal.
  2. His boss either ignores him or publicly demeans/ridicules him.
  3. Chris feels stupid, and embarrassed. (He is also used as the scapegoat by others seeking to avoid his fate.)
  4. He ‘hunkers down,’ shuts up, and stops volunteering suggestions or creating solutions for his company.

“While the corporate bully may not look or act like the playground thug, the victim’s response in either case is to hunker down and get out of the way.”

It is a lose-lose situation. The boss and the company are not getting Chris’ best self, or his best work. The boss is unhappy at his lack of productivity. Chris is feeling nothing but oppression from above. Instead of a collaborative team effort, Chris is a passive spectator to his boss’ dictatorship. He’s a demoralized player on the team feeling isolated and stressed.

Why does it happen?

The most important question to ask is WHY does Chris have to deal with a bully at work at all?

It boils down to a single key idea. Corporate bullies are often operating out of their own personal blind spots.  Rarely do executives endeavor to strike fear in the hearts of their subordinates. I am not saying it never happens, but the days of “They don’t have to like me, they just have to respect me,” are rapidly fading from our collective psyches. More integrated practice models are coming to the managing forefront where individual participants collectively pursue goals and create product strategy. The idea that you don’t have time to collaborate with colleagues is simply no longer true.

Instead, what we find are people who are victims of their own success. Those very same characteristics that enable leaders to rise to the top of their field (e.g. decisive nature, forward thinking, declarative, self directed, self-reliant, fearless, and competitive) can ultimately hurt them and interfere with their ability to effectively lead.

Are YOU a bully?

If this pattern seems familiar to you, you are not alone. Unfortunately, the list of executives whose dictatorial style of leadership ran their businesses into the ground is long:

  • Stan O’Neal at Merrill Lynch-fired people whose opinions differed-was taken over by Bank of America
  • Jimmy Cayne at Bear Stearns-detached and dictatorial-company went under
  • Richard Syron at Freddie Mac- ignored internal feedback that the company was buying bad loans- (we all know what happened there)
  • Joe Cassano, head of AIG Financial Products-ran the credit default swap program that ultimately drove the firm into government bailout

Your team may see you as a bully. Remember, perception is reality in this instance. If your team FEELS bullied, your intentions are irrelevant.

Bullying also happens on a smaller scale. I recently came across a checklist that can help you determine if you fall into this category.

Do you agree or disagree with the following questions?

  1. You fall in love with an idea, position, or deal.
  2. No one ever finds fault with your point of view.
  3. There is little dissent or debate in your leadership team.
  4. There are clear “winners” and “losers” during debate.
  5. You always believe you are the smartest guy in the room.
  6. Your direct reports rarely tell you bad news.
  7. You believe you are better at almost everything than anyone else on your team.
  8. You blame others when things go wrong.
  9. You rarely admit mistakes or apologize.
  10. You are an expert at catching others in an error.

If you agreed with 5 or more of these statements, your team may see you as a bully. Remember, perception is reality in this instance. If your team FEELS bullied, your intentions are irrelevant.

How do you avoid bullying?

Change is hard. You have to start by assuming you could be perceived as a bully.

NetApp’s Dan Warmenhoven calls his process for ‘bully prevention’ the five “C’s”. I like it. And it works because if you can systematize your accountability you will generally get better results.

  • Candor-Be truthful first and foremost with yourself. Really look at your patterns and the kind of feedback you get from your team. Secondarily, remember that unless your team trusts you enough to speak with candor, you are receiving partial information from them.
  • Collaboration– Remember that list of leadership strengths? Most leaders possess skill sets that are uniquely independent. Collaboration is not a weakness. “In today’s uncertain economic environment, effective leaders MUST solicit diverse viewpoints, remain open to new approaches and be willing to change.” To get you from bully to collaborator you need to be less independent. Ironic, right?
  • Commitment-If you tend toward the bullying style…you have to commit wholeheartedly to changing that pattern. Find a few trusted others to help hold you accountable, and monitor the feedback you get from your team.
  • Communication-Communication is a two way street. If you want to change your team’s perception of you, let them know! Set clear expectations, and be willing to listen. One approach that worked for me is formalizing the role of Devil’s Advocate. It is expected and assigned. No one feels singled out. Often, that Devil’s Advocate merely opens the door and leads the way for the rest of the team to voice their concerns.
  • Community– It takes a lot of work to change your style of leadership. Gather a group of people you trust to troubleshoot and debrief with.

My client Chris is living proof that a bullying leadership style is not ideal, productive, or effective. I have no doubt that his boss wants to be ‘successful.’ Most leaders want to do right by their companies, right by their employees, and right by themselves.

Being the leader can be an isolated and solitary experience. But it does not have to be. Ultimately, the burden of final decision-making falls to you as the leader. The trick is to implement those decisions without leaving a pile of bullied victims in your wake.


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