I sometimes field variations of this question concerning workplace bullying: Aren’t we talking about people who can’t deal with a tough boss?
My typical response is that there’s a big difference between a tough boss and an abusive one.
Case study: Christine Quinn
And thanks to an article in the New York Times, we have an example of someone who crosses the line into the abusive category: New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, currently Speaker of the City Council. Her public persona is described as feisty, brash, and sometimes charming, but descriptions of her private behavior paint a different picture. Here’s a snippet of the profile written by Michael Grynbaum and David Chen:
But in private, friends and colleagues say, another Ms. Quinn can emerge: controlling, temperamental and surprisingly volatile, with a habit of hair-trigger eruptions of unchecked, face-to-face wrath.
She has threatened, repeatedly, to slice off the private parts of those who cross her.
She is sensitive to slights: When a Queens councilwoman neglected to credit Ms. Quinn in a news release, the speaker retaliated by cutting money for programs in her district.
Ms. Quinn’s staff, concerned that angry tirades could be overheard by outsiders, added soundproofing to her City Hall office. Wary of her temper, they are known to ask one another: “Did she throw up on you today?”
Classic bullying behaviors
Grynbaum and Chen don’t stop with generalizations; they add plenty of specific examples, as well as Quinn’s own characterization of her persona. The full piece is worth reading.
Suffice it to say that the article describes a laundry list of classic bullying behaviors. While some workplace aggressors tend to be more direct or more indirect, Quinn apparently has mastered both forms. In terms of overt, direct behaviors, she’s a yeller and screamer, often employing foul, threatening language. In terms of covert, indirect behaviors, she brutally retaliates in response to even minor perceived slights.
Politics is rough business, but…
To be sure, politics can be a bloodsport, and those who seek to be players must have a thick skin if they want to survive. The article fairly points out that Quinn has been an effective Speaker in some ways and that previous holders of the office to which she aspires, including celebrated Mayors such as Fiorello LaGuardia and Rudy Giuliani, also had notable tempers. In addition, there always is the risk that women will be judged more harshly on such measures. And it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that some of the people who criticized Quinn but would not allow their names to be disclosed are among her political opponents and thus have their own agendas.
Nevertheless, this article does not smack of a planted hatchet job on one candidacy. Rather, it describes a pattern of repeated, highly volatile, abusive behaviors. It clearly shows us the difference between hard-nosed, demanding leadership and workplace bullying.