Our workshop on workplace bullying in Boston last Friday and Saturday (reported on here) covered a lot of ground, and among the topics discussed was what combinations of personal qualities may serve to prompt bullying behaviors. Veteran public school educator Torii Bottomley observed that a prime pairing is a supervisor with low competence and low ethics and a subordinate with high competence and high ethics. This observation yielded many nods of approval.
In essence, a subordinate presenting high levels of competence and ethics may pose a threat to a supervisor with the opposite qualities, especially if the latter is insecure and given to regarding talented subordinates as threats. Of course, authorities on bullying and mobbing behaviors such as Gary Namie and Ken Westhues have long recognized the intersection of competence and ethics as factors that may fuel abusive mistreatment of workers. But this hi-lo combo does neatly wrap it up in a bow, doesn’t it?
Fueling this dynamic is the reality that, especially in mediocre and dysfunctional organizations, the best people often do not rise to the top. On this point I once again invoke writer William Deresiewicz’s superb 2010 address on leadership to West Point cadets:
Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you.
The obvious and very sad implication here is that if a highly competent and ethical employee wants to maximize her chances of survival at a less-than-wonderful workplace, she might well be advised to hide her talents and character under a bushel, or at least to ensure that they do not shine too brightly.