Words rarely heard: “Boss, I think you need to get some help”

The hierarchical nature of our workplaces often means that managers, supervisors, and executives who engage in bullying and other aggressive behaviors will not be referred to counseling or mental health services, and their suffering co-workers will continue to pay the price. Let’s take a look at why this is so.

The misbehaving subordinate

At the typical workplace, acts of verbal, non-verbal, and physical aggression by a subordinate will not be well received by management. If aggressive behaviors are relatively mild, they may result in a follow up meeting, perhaps concluding with an oral warning and — at some workplaces — a recommendation to seek counseling or meet with the Employee Assistance Program.

More severe behaviors, especially if they recur, will lead to discipline, suspension, or dismissal. And, of course, physically violent behaviors usually lead to termination much sooner than later. These employer actions are understandable and sometimes downright necessary.

At really lousy workplaces, however, workers who complain about unsafe, unethical, or illegal practices may be labeled “unstable” and referred for psych evaluations in an effort to intimidate and discredit them.

The misbehaving boss

The misbehaving boss, on the other hand, often keeps chugging along, with no one in a position of power (or safety) to intervene. Oh, that’s just him/her, and we have to suck it up and live with it. Indeed, how many times does a subordinate say to a boss, “I think you need to get some help”?

In fact, we’ve become so accustomed to the idea that bosses may act as they please that the idea of intervention seems absurd in many cases. We’re even less likely to see organizations make changes when a boss has psychological issues that make him or her wrong for the job. In the meantime, various combinations of top-down bullying and aggression continue.

Social and legal contexts

Recently I had an opportunity to consider how social context promotes or impedes diagnoses of mental illness, and naturally I thought about the workplace.

We know that many management positions are inherently demanding and stressful. We also know that narcissistic and psychopathic personality traits appear more frequently the higher we go up the management food chain. And yet, the likelihood of intervention, even when the resulting behaviors are destructive and abusive, is very slim. Especially in non-union workplaces, underlings speak up at their peril. It’s similarly unlikely to come from the human resources office, especially if the abusive boss hired the HR director.

In America, the predominant rule of at-will employment — i.e., the right of an employer to terminate a worker for any reason or no reason at all — contributes mightily to this dynamic. A boss who screams at a subordinate is deemed to be exercising management prerogative, while the subordinate who responds by yelling back or even asking for an apology can be fired on the spot.

If we want our organizations to change for the better, then feedback mechanisms that address these problems fairly and responsively must be integrated into our work lives. Enactment of new laws such as the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill will help to spur those changes as well. Otherwise, we’re looking at more of the same.

2 responses

  1. I agree that management officials need a feedback mechanism to let them know when they are out of bounds and need to change. As we know very well, bullied workforces are unlikely to operate at maximum efficiency. They cost employers billions of dollars. In my own experience with using employee satisfaction questionnaires across a group of 37 worksites in sizes from 15 to 650 I found it easy to differentiate between those places with significant bully problems and those without. This sort of tool permits employees to honestly respond without fear of retribution. Over time, any intervention can be measured. Some questions are particularly sensitive to bullying. The questionnaires can be formulated to provide multiple streams of feedback from the need for training, equipment, workplace organization, and supervisory support at differing levels. As the issue of workplace bullying becomes more understood and accepted; enlightened workplaces could use these tools and continue to develop such tools to give feedback to these abusive managers.

    • Carol, yes(!), those employee satisfaction survey results can be very illuminating! I will add to your fine comment that it’s critical that the results not be buried or stuck in a drawer, a form of de facto cover up.

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