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Pulling the Curtain Back on the Workplace Bully

daftandbarmy

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Good one....


Over the years, I have had the unfortunate experience of observing or being on the receiving end of workplace bullying. Behaviours such as intimidation, public derision, ridicule and blame are some of the tactics bullies use to control the flow of information within a group in order to establish a narrative of heroes and villains. While on INSEAD’s Executive Master in Change programme, I became interested in how bullying behaviour inhibits a group’s ability to effectively solve problems.

Workplace bullies try to break the back of collaborative problem solving and rational sense-making. They strive to replace these activities with a fantasy that turns themselves into the hero and others into villains. In every case of workplace bullying that I have witnessed, the results are the same: An organisation’s ability to deliver value to its customers is severely hit.

It is often said that bullies are protected because they are star performers. Senior managers foolishly believe that people who use intimidation, public derision, ridicule and blame “get s**t done”. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have found that people who intimidate others create chaos in their organisation by manipulating information. No one gets the information they need to do their job well. Bullying inhibits people from thinking out loud and freely exchanging ideas.

One manager, known for his aggressive behaviour and use of intimidation, would make almost every request to his staff an urgent matter. In some cases he would give the same task to two different members of his department without informing either that he had done so. This created a situation of the right hand not knowing what the left was doing. His team was defined by chaos and confusion, to the extent that a person from outside the department asked in a meeting, “Do you people talk to each other?”

His leadership team made several attempts to address some of the dysfunctions in the department, but lost their cohesion as he played them off each other; bonding with some, humiliating others, then bonding with those he had publicly attacked. People in the department didn’t know when the rug would be pulled out from under them or when they would be publicly humiliated. Their sense of being competent professionals was constantly undercut. In private, people questioned the value they were actually delivering to the wider organisation. Cynicism, passive aggressiveness and defensive behaviour were rife.

Heroes and villains

In every case where I have seen a workplace bully protected, it was because a senior manager, far removed from reality on the ground, subscribed to the fantasy of “heroes” and “villains” propagated by the bully. Some researchers such as University of London’s Sheila White propose that bullying in the workplace is symptomatic of a leadership void. In this analysis, bullying goes beyond a single “bad apple”; it is a symptom of a wider cultural problem.

People who bully in the workplace are often skilled networkers. Experienced bullies subtly play their associates off against each other, strategically controlling who gets what information. They expertly charm those with power and often present themselves as visionaries. In reality, I believe bullies exploit senior managers who harbour a strong sense of insecurity despite projecting an air of confidence. To suppress their insecurity, they surround themselves with people who give them positive attention. INSEAD Professor Manfred Kets de Vries describes this positive attention as a form of painkiller. At management level, bullies nurture paranoia. Anyone can be thrown under the bus, publicly or privately. This creates an environment in which everyone is on the defensive and covers their backs.

Bullies do everything in their power to avoid accountability. They are masters at combining aggression with ambiguity. They may have a take-charge voice and mannerism, but their words often cannot be acted upon, are inaccurate or simply nonsensical for the problem at hand. Those who ask questions are quickly met with personal ridicule and derision. To bring any sense of clarity into the discussion requires a Herculean effort, if it is possible at all.

Bullying can be looked at as a perverse form of communication. The shame and self-degradation that people on the receiving end of bullying often feel are in fact the emotional experience of the bully themselves. The bully is saying: “I am not strong enough to experience these feelings myself. I need you to experience them for me.” Psychoanalysts refer to this form of communication as projective identification – the recipient identifies with the projected emotion as if it were their own. When you are on the receiving end of this type of communication, it is very difficult to discern which emotions are your own and which are someone else’s. This is what makes bullying so pernicious and confusing: People who are bullied become engulfed with feelings of inadequacy that are not theirs to begin with.

What if you are bullied?

First and foremost, do not feel shamed or inadequate. Bullies attack others’ sense of self-worth to cover their own profound sense of emptiness and shame.

If you can get out of the organisation, do so. Bullying is indicative of a wider cultural and leadership problem within the organisation.

Make extra effort to put your mental and physical well-being first. Be willing to admit that someone else’s behaviour is having a detrimental effect on you. Take extra precautions to protect your own well-being and that of your loved ones.

Become aware of how people who use intimidation, public derision, ridicule and blame are trying to destabilise you and others. The more aware you are, the easier it will be to plant your feet firmly on the ground.

Try to articulate specific behaviours the bully exhibits and how these are used as intimidation tactics. Become aware, too, of how bullies use ambiguity and vagueness to hide from accountability. What emotional responses do you have to these behaviours and tactics? Can you create distance between your emotional response and your reaction? Simply pausing and taking a deep breath in challenging interactions can go a long way in helping you stay grounded.

Find people you can talk to. The more you can talk about the situation openly, the less taboo it becomes. Share what’s happening with your spouse and family members. Make time to listen to colleagues who are on the receiving end of bullying behaviour. Simply listening to someone can be extremely helpful.

Seek professional counselling. A good counsellor can help you see how your behaviours may be adding fuel to the fire and possibly making you more vulnerable to attack. They can also help you understand how your sense of self-worth is being manipulated.

Don’t allow yourself to be played: Don’t participate in the vilification of your colleagues.

Finally, don’t be silent. If you witness someone being treated poorly, go to that person and say you witnessed it. Bullying is a silent epidemic, and silence is a form of consent.

https://knowledge.insead.edu/blog/insead-blog/pulling-the-curtain-back-on-the-workplace-bully-13461
 

Colin Parkinson

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My predecessor at the CCG hovercraft base on his last day, punched out the boss who is a classic case of what you describe and shoved him head first into a garbage can on his last day at work. I arrived without knowing the insane dynamics going on. He had grievances from all his Captains that the senior management had swept under the rug. We worked in 3 man crews, Captain, 2nd officer and Rescue Specialists. One day the boss comes out to me and starts bad mouthing the 2nd officer to me and asking me to help get him into trouble. I said "Sir it's none of my business as to what you think of my supervisor and you should take your concerns to the Captain" Well that one line put me into the "enemy camp" and he went after me quite hard, one day after he harassed me enough, my hand was shaking and I was about to lose it and hit him. My Captain took one look at me, grabbed the boss and kicked out of the building so he would not get punched out again. The rest of the people there were utterly fantastic to work with, but he sure soured it for a lot of people and likley caused at least one heart attack. 
 

tomahawk6

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How to deal with a toxic boss. In the lower ranks you might find some bullies but in the officer ranks its a certainty. If he or she is the boss then you have tofigure out how to deal with them if you want to progress. Some of the worst offenders are found at battalion or brigade level for some odd reason. In the service you run into all types of people. Some are people persons and others are purplepeopleeaters. 8)
 

NavyShooter

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Applying lock-out/tag-out procedures on a certain person's cabin for a couple of days at sea...no power, no water, no heat, no a/c. 

Fragging is old school...following proper procedures to safely change out a ballast and repair a faucet is so much more passive aggressive.
 

mariomike

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Can't say I ever witnessed bullying at work. That is not to say psychological bullying did not happen in the offices at HQ. I didn't witness it, but I heard about it.

That's not to say it was all brotherly love in the stations. When you spend 40-hours a week with the same partner for years, decades in some cases, it's the little things that get to you. Sort of like a marriage, I guess.

The dynamics differ from station to station. Just as they do from home to home among families.

The fights I saw were almost predictable. They were among men who were known to be "good with their dukes".

That is not to justify fist-fighting at work. Just to say it was understandable when cooped up with the same people, and the nearest supervisor is miles away.







 

LittleBlackDevil

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It seems to me that the army, especially combat arms, could be a bit "vulnerable" to bullies getting into positions of power since their aggression could be mistaken as being a good leader.

Among some staff at the Infantry School in Gagetown when I was there seemed to think that bully=good leader. I remember well on my phase training that myself and several others who were not complete assholes in barracks that we were "not leaders" and that we would be failed off the course. That said, once we got out into the field I did well and those same instructors said they were shocked. To me being in the field actually warranted yelling (to be heard over gunfire) and pushing guys to do what needed to be done. In barracks I didn't really see the need to be like that but they sure loved the guys who were screaming at people all the time and ridiculing fellow officer cadets.

Different set of staff when I did my Phase III and with them the above did not seem to be the case.
 

daftandbarmy

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LittleBlackDevil said:
It seems to me that the army, especially combat arms, could be a bit "vulnerable" to bullies getting into positions of power since their aggression could be mistaken as being a good leader.

Among some staff at the Infantry School in Gagetown when I was there seemed to think that bully=good leader. I remember well on my phase training that myself and several others who were not complete assholes in barracks that we were "not leaders" and that we would be failed off the course. That said, once we got out into the field I did well and those same instructors said they were shocked. To me being in the field actually warranted yelling (to be heard over gunfire) and pushing guys to do what needed to be done. In barracks I didn't really see the need to be like that but they sure loved the guys who were screaming at people all the time and ridiculing fellow officer cadets.

Different set of staff when I did my Phase III and with them the above did not seem to be the case.

So, what you're saying is, the Combat Arms have no consistency when it comes to teaching leadership on one of the most important, formative leadership courses of anyone's career?

Interesting... I wonder what the knock on effects might be for the wider organization?

Oh, wait, I already know :)
 

bloque

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Yes, and there are some bullies who sacrifice working extra hours, manipulate policies through rumours and gossip to get some pet peeve fired!
 

LittleBlackDevil

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daftandbarmy said:
So, what you're saying is, the Combat Arms have no consistency when it comes to teaching leadership on one of the most important, formative leadership courses of anyone's career?

Interesting... I wonder what the knock on effects might be for the wider organization?

Oh, wait, I already know :)

The wild inconsistency in evaluation was the thing that really got me. Some guys clearly didn't know what they were doing, yet somehow were allowed to pass, or where given a really easy assignment for their test. Then there were other guys who were clearly highly competent who got failed off the course for BS reasons or no reason at all. One guy in particular got failed off the course last day of the course, got given a defensive assignment where the enemy force attacked every hour all night (whereas they'd usually attack once or twice). Got failed because he apparently didn't check on of the depth trenches on attack #10 of 12. Everyone on the course was like WTF??? Versus another guy who never left his command trench all night and didn't have a single enemy force attack and passed. But we're getting a bit into the tall grass here ... this doesn't have anything to do with bullying.
 

daftandbarmy

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LittleBlackDevil said:
But we're getting a bit into the tall grass here ... this doesn't have anything to do with bullying.

Sure it's bullying, but in disguise. That's the best way to get away with it, right? ;)
 

Humphrey Bogart

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LittleBlackDevil said:
The wild inconsistency in evaluation was the thing that really got me. Some guys clearly didn't know what they were doing, yet somehow were allowed to pass, or where given a really easy assignment for their test. Then there were other guys who were clearly highly competent who got failed off the course for BS reasons or no reason at all. One guy in particular got failed off the course last day of the course, got given a defensive assignment where the enemy force attacked every hour all night (whereas they'd usually attack once or twice). Got failed because he apparently didn't check on of the depth trenches on attack #10 of 12. Everyone on the course was like WTF??? Versus another guy who never left his command trench all night and didn't have a single enemy force attack and passed. But we're getting a bit into the tall grass here ... this doesn't have anything to do with bullying.

This is group bullying at it's best.  Usually someone decides that for whatever reason, person X is now persona non-grata and the staff goes about torpedoing him using our incredibly subjective standards.

Pretty much human nature though and I don't think it's ever going to go away.  Also very important for organizations that operate on a lot of HUA and RAHRAH.  It's very important that the membership of those organizations believe in their own legend, no matter how much bullshit it's spun up with. 
 
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