NYC mayoral candidate highlights the line between tough bosses and abusive ones

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.

4 responses

  1. I found reading the comments following the article referenced as informative as the article itself. Very encouraging that so many people are interested in discussing and forming opinions relating to the issues of bullying and leadership!

  2. I’m still interested in the question though -“Aren’t we talking about people who can’t deal with a tough boss?” What about those people who can’t deal with a tough boss and act like “tough bosses” are abusive when they really aren’t? I see this in the government sector, where I work.

  3. I, also, read the article. For people who have short-tempers and flare up at others at the slightest provocation, I do think that they would benefit from anger management classes/trainings, as well as behavioral modification treatment, in some cases.

    It sounds as though Christine Quinn may lack a necessary skill in managing her emotions that, if treated (worked on), might increase her interpersonal effectiveness.

    Lashing out at others who speak their minds about her unruly behavior seems, to me, to be someone who may be compulsively obsessed with negatively controlling others’ behaviors in order to avoid looking at her own..

    Abusive, I would say yes. No one should have to endure someone entering into one’s personal space – however each of us defines that, often it comprises the immediate physical space around us-and point in that person’s face while screaming that him/her.
    And, I agree, it does sound as though she engages in abusive behavior in order get her way, so to speak, as would a toddler engage in similar behavior, if unchecked.

    My experience of tough bosses has been of someone who sets very high performance standards.. Having said that, the employer (an effective one) is able to notice when someone is working really hard to meet those standards. This person is, also, someone who is willing to provide purposeful feedback so that the employee has clear and concise guidance that enables the employee to obtain those goals, if possible.

    On the other hand, my experience of an abusive employer is someone who is lacking in one’s own internal locust of control, so to speak. In other words, the abusive boss is not able to manage one’s own internal processes in order to separate one’s personal baggage from one’s responsibilities as a supervisor/employer.

    The two aspects of the person somehow inappropriately enmesh and meld into a series of behaviors experienced, by those unfortunate enough to be associated with that person, as someone who is out of control and abusive.

    In my particular case, the supervisor that I have the misfortune of having to work with, also, has a sadistic quality to her, whereby she thrives on targeting me with inconsistent information (often flawed, which I have to address), as well as seeking to hurt me so that she can enjoy watching me suffer.

    Over the years, I have observed her inflicting injury upon others and standing around watching them suffer with a smirk on her face. Little did she know that I was observing her, as she tends to be so obsessed with herself that her environment pales in comparison..

    My latest encounter with her inappropriateness resulted in my having to set very firm boundaries with her in terms of our professional engagement with one another. I knew I risked termination, as I always do when I speak up (I very carefully pick my battles).

    Needless to say, the CEO – the enabler – was very angry with me, as he tends to rationalize her behavior.

    Sadly, I did notice from this latest toxic encounter, that I do have a PTSD cluster of symptoms that has surfaced due to the years of abuse. It affected my experience with my interactions with my daughter when I returned home that evening, someone who is recovering from surgery.

    I certainly made a point of e-mailing both the CEO and my immediate supervisor to remind them of how the impact of the behavior which I described to both of them, hurts the employee as well as the family.

    Sometimes I think we live in an offender protected society, in that our culture instills in our youth the need to win, sometimes, at all costs, which can manifest itself later as being some rather toxic phenomenon for others to deal with.

    It seems that a percentage of our youth picks up that there are either winners or losers, missing the opportunities for those instilled with those values, to explore one’s unique qualities as an individual and that this exploration is a worthy endeavor. Instead, those who are provided with such a gem, are considered threats to the norm that the offenders have been conditioned to live within the confines of.

    Personally I think that responding/reacting to that threat results in offensive and abusive behavior being directed at those who do not need to engage in a win/lose dichotomy in order to experience life’s gifts, often resulting in attempts at negative control in order to maintain the status quo of one’s reality.

    Thank you, David, for the provocative topics that enable us to understand and discuss this most problematic set of behaviors.

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