When boss behaviors fall short of bullying, but still prompt an “oy”

If we define workplace bullying as intentional, often repeated, verbal or non-verbal mistreatment of employee that causes mental or physical harm, then it follows that a lot of not-so-great behaviors fall short of that threshold. Bullying, as I’ve come to think of it, is targeted and usually malicious in nature. “Bad bossism,” on the other hand, is simply that.

I just read Adam Bryant’s New York Times interview of Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini, and I’m glad that I don’t work for her. (Barstool Sports, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a “bro” site featuring lots of sports talk and photos of scantily clad co-eds.) While nothing in the interview necessarily cries out “bullying boss,” Nardini’s punishing management practices and assessments of humanity aren’t for everyone: 

1. She’ll run people into the ground in order to build a better Barstool.

I think I’m punishing. I have a large ability to grind. If I want something or if I believe in something or I think something should be done better, I will push and push until I exhaust people.

I really value stamina and drive. I am bad with stagnation and complacency. It’s not just about winning, but did we do everything possible to make something happen?

2. That includes being available 24/7, and she’s going to test that during your interview phase.

If you’re in the process of interviewing with us, I’ll text you about something at 9 p.m. or 11 a.m. on a Sunday just to see how fast you’ll respond.

[In response to the followup question of permissible response time] Within three hours. It’s not that I’m going to bug you all weekend if you work for me, but I want you to be responsive. I think about work all the time. Other people don’t have to be working all the time, but I want people who are also always thinking.

3. She’s got a single-lens, 90/10 view of humanity.

I had to learn, and I’m still learning, about the kinds of people on my team who can run in my system, which is pretty hard-driving.

…There were people who weren’t into it, and it took me a long time to learn that there are people who I call “90 percent players” and there are “10 percent players.”

The 90 percent players are superdependable. They work hard every day, and they’re amenable to whatever you want to do.

And the 10 percent people may not be great 90 percent of the time, but 10 percent of the time they’re genius, and they’re genius at the moment that matters.

It took me a long time to learn that there’s a beauty and a gift in the 10 percent people, and you have to be able to unlock it.

Oy, indeed.

It would’ve been great had interviewer Bryant followed up with a question about work-life balance, but we’ll have to imagine Nardini’s response. (I’d predict some variation on “work hard, play hard.”)

To be fair, Nardini is no different than any other CEO who expects their underlings to demonstrate fulsome devotion to their jobs. She’s merely among the latest to regard her management philosophy as worth bragging about. Of course, we’re used to hearing this stuff from certain male CEOs, so perhaps it’s a sign of ironic, umm, progress, that a female CEO is spouting more of the same.

Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching

At the just-concluded International Congress on Law and Mental Health in Prague, I presented a short paper, “Addressing Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Incivility in Higher Education: The Roles of Law, Cultures, Codes, and Coaching,” as part of a panel discussion on legal issues in higher education. In assembling this talk, I drew heavily upon sources discussed in past blog entries, as I have long been interested in bullying behaviors in academe. Here’s a slightly edited version of my outline for the talk:

I. Introduction

  1. Short definitions
  • Workplace bullying – Intentional, often repeated, and health harming mistreatment of an employee by one of more other employees, using verbal and non-verbal means.
  • Workplace mobbing – An intentional “ganging up” on an employee by multiple employees, using bullying-type behaviors.
  • Workplace incivility – Behavior that violates conventional norms of workplace conduct.

2. Impacts

  • Reduced employee productivity, attentiveness, and employee morale, increased attrition and absenteeism;
  • Increased employee benefit costs and liability exposure;
  • For workplace bullying and mobbing, significant mental and physical health effects, including clinical depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation.

II. Bullying, Mobbing, and Incivility in Academe

  1. Are they problems in academic institutions?

Yes, books and studies have documented this. See my blog post, “Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in Academe: The Hell of Heaven?” (rev. 2014).

In the United States, political controversies in the aftermath of the 2016 election have fueled bullying, mobbing, and incivility on campuses.

2. Bullying, Mobbing, Incivility: Common Status Combinations

  • Board > administrator(s)/faculty
  • Administrator(s) > administrator(s)/faculty/staff
  • Tenured faculty > non-tenured faculty
  • Tenured faculty > tenured faculty
  • Faculty > mid-level administrator(s)/staff/graduate students
  • Staff > staff

3. My Pet Theory: “Dilbert in Tweed”

Academicians are adept at intellectual analysis, manipulation, and argumentation.  When applied to the tasks of teaching, scholarship, and service, these skills reinforce the most socially useful aspects of the academy.  But many of us who have worked in academe have seen what happens when they are applied in hurtful or even malicious ways.

Of course, exquisitely rationalized actions and explanations occur in many organizations, but in dysfunctional academic settings, they often rise to an art form.  After repeated such bludgeonings, we may become accustomed to, and sometimes all too indifferent towards, intellectual dishonesty and rhetorical “mal-manipulation.”  Call it Dilbert in Tweed.

Because this kind of mental facility often is at the heart of both perpetrating and defending bullying, academe becomes a natural petri dish for such behaviors, especially the covert varieties.  After all, so many decisions in the academy are based upon very subjective judgments.  This can create a particularly attractive setting for the passive-aggressive bully and the quiet-but-deadly mob.

(Passage adapted from David C. Yamada “The Role of the Law in Combating Workplace Mobbing and Bullying,” which appears in Kenneth Westhues’s edited volume, Workplace Mobbing in Academe (2004).)

III.       Relational vs. Non-Relational Organizational Cultures

Drs. Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks, “Relational-Cultural Practice: Working in a Nonrelational World” (2002), paper published by the Wellesley Centers for Women:

A “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”

By contrast, the authors identify three types of “non-relational cultures” that hurt morale and productivity:

  • “traditional hierarchical” cultures that emphasize top-down power;
  • “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change; and,
  • brute “survival” cultures that pit everyone against one another in the quest for status and institutional spoils.

IV. A Suggested Therapeutic Jurisprudence-Informed Approach

  1. Build a relational work culture
  • Nurture civility and responsible speech, i.e., the Golden Rule
  • Manage incivility with non/less-punitive interventions (coaching, counseling)
  • Avoid civility codes

2. Prohibit Abuse

  • Anti-bullying provisions in employee policies
  • Progressive discipline
  • Avoid long, drawn-out, multi-layered disciplinary procedures
  • Incorporate legal liabilities and obligations: Especially discrimination & harassment laws (most nations); whistleblower & anti-retaliation protections (most nations); anti-bullying & mobbing laws (some nations).

Bad bosses: The consistent jerk vs. Jekyll & Hyde

Workers of the world, given your druthers, would you rather have a boss who is a jerk all of the time or just part of the time? Believe it or not, it may be easier to deal with the full-time version.

Jena McGregor, writing for the “On Leadership” column of the Washington Post, reports on a research study by Fadel K. Matta, Brent A. ScottJason A. Colquitt, Joel Koopman, and Liana G. Passantino published in the Academy of Management Journal, finding “that employees are less stressed and have more job satisfaction when their bosses are always unfair than when their boss is unpredictable.”

One part of the study involved a lab experiment with college students getting feedback from a boss in simulated work environments:

To no one’s surprise, those who got the consistently nice feedback fared best when it came to the heart rate monitoring. But those who consistently heard how much it sucks to work with them did better than those who sometimes heard compliments and sometimes got burned.

The second part of the study surveyed actual workers in a variety of work settings and found the same thing:

Again, employees who had unpredictable managers were more likely to be stressed, dissatisfied with their jobs and emotionally exhausted than those who said they were always treated unfairly.

The Jekyll and Hyde boss

These research findings dovetail with what we’ve heard for years about bad bosses, workplace bullying, and workplace incivility, namely, that the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde bosses may cause higher levels of stress and uncertainty than those whose behaviors are predictable and consistent. We tend to prefer certainty to uncertainty, perhaps even to the point of opting for a reliably jerky boss over one who offers kudos one day and rants the next. After all, many of us exercise such a preference in other human interactions, ranging from personal relationships to dealing with authority figures such as police officers.

So what lies beneath these Jekyll and Hyde behaviors? In a blog post earlier this year, business school professor Joel Brockner discusses a study by Szu Han Lin, Jingjing Ma, and Russell Johnson that offers two possible explanations. The first is “moral licensing”:

One is moral licensing, which is based on the idea that people want to think of themselves and their behavior as ethical or moral. Having behaved ethically, people are somewhat paradoxically free to behave less ethically, either because their prior behavior gave them moral credits in their psychological ledgers or because it proved them to be fine, upstanding citizens.

The second is personal resource depletion:

A second explanation is based on Roy Baumeister’s notion of ego depletion, which assumes that people have a limited amount of self-control resources. Ego depletion refers to how people exerting self-control in one situation are less able to do so in a subsequent situation. Ego depletion helps to explain, for instance, why employees tend to make more ethical decisions earlier rather than later in the day.

Of course, this also begs the question of whether too many employers hire too many bosses who have low levels of ethics and self-control to begin with, leaving a very thin margin of error in terms of everyday treatment of subordinates and peers. As I have mentioned frequently here, research indicates that the higher we go up the organizational chart, the more we find leaders who demonstrate anti-social and psychopathic qualities. Accordingly, the presence of bad bosses probably means that some employers are drawn to the wrong kind of people as potential managers and leaders in the first place. In such instances, they’re more likely to see Dr. Jekyll at the interview, with Mr. Hyde showing up for the first day of work.

From the archives: Some overlooked nuggets

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

Minding the Workplace now covers some eight years of blogging, including nearly 1,500 articles posted. Many of these pieces have staying power thanks to Internet search engines; articles from years ago continue to attract page views as a result. But some pieces don’t get many search “hits,” even if they’re still relevant. I’ve gathered ten of these articles from the middle years of this blog (2011-2014). None rank among the 250 most-read posts, but I believe they’re worth reading. I hope you’ll agree!

Selective praise as a form of workplace marginalization (2014) — “Have you ever worked in an organization where some people receive lavish praise from higher ups for the most modest of achievements, while others do remarkable things but receive, at best, an obligatory nod from the folks in charge?”

Understanding the Holocaust (and why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces) (2014) — “Allusions to the Holocaust, Nazis, Hitler, and the like must be offered carefully. This includes discussions involving employee relations. Even terrible workplaces are not concentration camps. But I respectfully suggest that these comparisons are important and useful when severe workplace bullying and abuse are under examination.”

Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying (2014) — “Spreading malicious gossip is among the most frequent bullying tactics used, especially by those who demonstrate psychopathic qualities. Calculatedly and without conscience, they plant the seeds in casual conversations and e-mails: Oh, you know what I heard? Guess what so-and-so told me. You can’t share this with anyone, but….”

Words rarely heard: “Boss, I think you need to get some help” (2013) — “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.”

On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? (2013) — “We talk about good leaders who strive to create healthy organizational cultures, the places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who crack the whip, bully, and treat others as expendable parts. But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations?”

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (2012) — “It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.”

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (2012) — “Are bullying and related behaviors concentrated within a smaller number of toxic workplaces? . . . The concept of a cancer cluster has led me think about whether we can designate specific workplaces as “bullying clusters.” If we can, is there value in doing so?”

Can workplace incivility ever be healthy? (2011) — “Those of us who study workplaces generally assume that incivility is a bad thing. After all, an interaction involving incivility can ruin a work day, especially if it comes from your boss. At times, incivility can elevate into active disrespect and even bullying. . . . However, there are times when incivility may be an understandable consequence of a disagreement or difference of opinion. Such exchanges — often marked by the use of otherwise rude, harsh, or offensive words — can clear the air, hopefully paving the way toward a healthy resolution.”

How lousy organizations treat institutional history (2011) — “How do lousy organizations treat their own institutional history? In other words, how do they treat their past, recent or otherwise?”

Loyalty, “betrayal,” and workplace bullying: Does insider status matter? (2011) — “Suppose an employee openly disagrees with a position taken by her boss. Does her status as an insider or outsider impact the likelihood of being bullied by the boss? In other words, is a boss more likely to bully a “disloyal” subordinate who is part of his inner circle or favored group versus one who is not?”

Tolerance and acceptance at work

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Journalist Joanne Richard kindly interviewed me for a Monster Canada piece on tolerance at work, timed to coincide with the United Nations’ International Tolerance Day on November 16. Here are some of my comments:

Workplaces have become more inclusive and tolerant in the past five decades, says Dr. David Yamada, internationally recognized authority on workplace bullying and employment discrimination. “More enlightened social attitudes and the messaging roles of employment discrimination laws have contributed to this progress.”

But recent divisive political antics may have set us back: “Survey data from the American Psychological Association indicate that the U.S. presidential election has had a negative effect on workplace conversations and that workers are divided by gender and generation, all to the detriment of overall productivity,” says Yamada, law professor and director of New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

***

Incivility, ostracism, bullying, and harassment remain serious problems in less-than-wonderful workplaces, says Yamada. “Of course, external individual events may fuel intolerance in the workplace as well. These range from the seemingly trivial, such as sports rivalries, to the more serious, such as politics, religion, and major public events,” he says.

Bad behaviour takes its toll, including increased interpersonal conflicts, greater stress and anxiety, and drops in individual and organizational productivity, he adds.

I gave these three suggestions for creating more tolerant, inclusive workplaces:

  • “Let’s give each other some room to express our differences, to vent, and to have a bad day.”
  • “Play and work by the Golden Rule.”
  • “Contribute to building organizational cultures of acceptance and individual dignity.”

Tolerance, acceptance, and taking a stand

I must admit that I sometimes struggle with the term “tolerance” in these contexts. When I think of the word, it means a sort of grudging, teeth-gritting exercise of breathing deep and keeping your mouth shut when something rubs you the wrong way, a sort of coping in relative silence for some greater good. I should know, as I’ve been there and sometimes go back there!

Acceptance of differences is a much more splendored next level. All things being equal, a live-and-let-live attitude is better for everyone. When I’m in that place, I can practically feel my blood pressure lowering.

However, I know that all things are not equal, which is why a pie-in-the-sky, happily ignorant form of acceptance won’t work for me. Among other things, working toward acceptance does not mean tolerating (or, heaven forbid, accepting) the intolerable or intolerant. Sometimes we must take a stand, hopefully in the most effective way possible.

Here in the U.S., we’re struggling with this in the aftermath of the presidential election. This struggle is manifesting itself in our workplaces, communities, and circles of friends and family. I have a feeling we’re in for a very bumpy ride, and the ways in which we relate to one another individually will make a big difference.

 

Harvard Business Review on working with toxic colleagues

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On Point, a periodic collection of themed articles drawn from the archives of the Harvard Business Review, devotes its fall 2016 issue to “How to Work with Toxic Colleagues.” Here’s a summary of the table of contents:

This issue of Harvard Business Review OnPoint identifies common scenarios and personality types that are difficult to work with and offers psychological, managerial, and tactical insights on how to combat, and even reverse, the corrosive effects of trying to collaborate with toxic colleagues. Articles include “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks,” by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo; “Coaching the Toxic Leader,” by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries; “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons,” by Michael Maccoby; “Is Silence Killing Your Company?” by Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams; “HBR Case Study: What a Star-What a Jerk,” by Sarah Cliffe; and “Make Your Enemies Your Allies,” by Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap. You’ll also find selected content from our website, such as “How to Deal with a Mean Colleague,” by Amy Gallo, and “Defusing an Emotionally Charged Conversation with a Colleague,” by Ron Friedman.

I’ve browsed through this issue, and it looks like a worthy purchase for those interested in how to deal with varieties of toxic co-workers at the ground level, particularly in professional office settings. It will be less useful for those seeking advice on how to transform or fix toxic workplaces. These pieces are not openly available online, so you’ll need to buy the issue if you want to read them.

In fact, I think the closing of the editors’ intro note is telling:

Armed with insight, your own sense of self, and the right strategies, you can combat — and even reverse — the corrosive effects of trying to collaborate with toxic colleagues. You might even come out looking like a hero.

The Harvard Business Review isn’t about worker solidarity. And this collection of articles implicitly recognizes that determining how to deal with a difficult or nasty colleague or boss in today’s professional workplace is usually an individual choice, not a collective assessment. This is often the reality of things, though we don’t have to be happy about it.

Psychological safety and the successful workplace

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Aamna Mohdin writes for Quartz earlier this year on Google’s research efforts to identify the keys to creating successful work teams. The answer turned out to be pretty simple:

Google’s data-driven approach ended up highlighting what leaders in the business world have known for a while; the best teams respect one another’s emotions and are mindful that all members should contribute to the conversation equally. It has less to do with who is in a team, and more with how a team’s members interact with one another.

Consequently, says Mohdin, “Google now describes psychological safety as the most important factor to building a successful team.”

Or, to put it another way, it’s about valuing human dignity on the job. It’s about embracing the Golden Rule at work. It’s about trying to be inclusive and fair.

The flipside, of course, is when incivility, exclusion, harassment, and bullying enter the picture. Psychologically safe organizations have a culture that discourages these behaviors, but what happens when they occur? The true authenticity of that culture is revealed by how these situations are handled, individually and organizationally.

***

Hat tip to Cosette Chichirau for Quartz piece on Google.

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