The hi-lo combo: Competence, ethics, and workplace bullying

Discussion at the Workplace Bullying Workshop, Suffolk University Law School, Oct. 2015

Discussion at the Workplace Bullying Workshop, Suffolk University Law School, Oct. 2015

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. 

 

9 responses

  1. “…she might well be advised to hide her talents and character under a bushel..” This is the common message as these employees are advised to “suck it up” or “just stay under the wire” by those whom they pay to defend their rights. Perhaps a violation of the 1st Amendment, this comes at a cost to the mindbody of the employee as well as to society. The effects are apparent, albeit difficult to measure. The quality of public education, health care, etc. is worsening at the same time expert, ethical employees are sidelined to make way for mediocre or even poor performing employees (whom make up the cadre of “lieutenents”) that also buy into the “kiss up, kick down” mentality.

  2. This has been my experience at several large corporations. Thank you, David, for your very valuable blog. So many of us try our very best every day and are often not appreciated and even abused in the workplace. Too many of us who hold support roles are used as scape goats for incompetent management who are no more than astute actors rather than professionals with good business acumen.

  3. Unfortunately employees who see abusive and even illegal behavior are silenced by threats of termination or a demotion if they report it…There needs to be a uniform whistleblower protection policy in the US so that employees can feel SAFE and be PROTECTED if they report wrong doing….only then will the whistleblower feel safe and corruption and abuse be thwarted…

  4. The book “Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It” goes into great detail why people are targeted (from both the target’s and the abuser’s vantage points). It’s a complex phenomenon. There are often many bright and ethical people in agencies. Why, then, are certain bright and ethical people the ones to be targeted? And others, not?

    • My personal observations and those of others I have spoken with is that those of “hi” competence who look the other way are lower down on the target. They suffer “moral injury” because they did not speak up or speak out. These people will eventually leave the organization because their mindbodies are negatively affected and they begin to dispise themselves for being passive; suffer a disconnect from self.

    • My personal observations and those of others I have spoken with is that those of “hi” competence who look the other way are lower down on the target list. They suffer “moral injury” because they did not speak up or speak out. These people will eventually leave the organization because their mindbodies are negatively affected and they begin to dispise themselves for being passive; suffer a disconnect from self.

  5. Pingback: How forces keep the best employees down | Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill

  6. This dynamic is a factor in the HORIZONTAL and VERTICAL angles of workplace bullying. Collegial recruits (“lieutenents”) who help execute the plan of the bully boss (“mobbing”) have the same hi-lo relationship to the target. Meeting this criteria, the boss knows whom to recruit.

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