Everyone agrees bully bosses are bad. They are bad for staff morale and productivity. They sow illness, stress and depression, and undermine people’s confidence. The bully boss is so last century. Every modern workplace has a policy to address the Neanderthal manager who yells, intimidates, belittles, harasses or uses an abusive, authoritarian style to get his or her way. So why are they so hard to get rid of? Why, indeed, do bully bosses so often thrive and win promotion?
Bullying bosses prosper as workers sag
The secret of bully bosses is their ability to manage up. Kiss up and kick down is a time-honoured motto. When complaints and stress leave forms roll in, the bully’s masters are so taken in by past displays of charm and equanimity they cannot fathom the charges. Besides, those who manage staff through intimidation are often regarded as hard-driving and tough, just what the times require.
What is the line between being a bully and a ”rough diamond”? What is the line for workers between hyper-sensitivity and rightful outrage? Endless room for argument on issues of definition is one reason the bully lives to see another day, and then another.
A group of workers I know thought the weight of numbers must surely count for something when a bully boss was placed in charge of their previously happy and productive workplace.
The workplace was a government-run group home where a rotating group of nine workers took 24-hour care of five adults with physical and intellectual disabilities. Some of the residents were wheelchair-bound, some were incontinent – all needed help with showering, dressing and feeding.
It is a tough job but most disability workers stay in the sector because they find the work rewarding; in this home some of the staff had careers in disability going back two decades.
Group homes work best for the staff and the residents when the team dynamics are good and they were particularly good in this home. The new manager’s style, however, was soon felt and most staff found it aggressive, controlling and intimidating. To avoid being at the receiving end of what they experienced as hectoring and sarcastic diatribes, some responded like classic victims of domestic abuse. They became quiet, submissive and tried to avoid interactions. They desisted from saying anything that might raise the manager’s ire.
It is an exhausting and self-destructive modus operandi and it took its toll. Eventually some made formal complaints to the Ageing, Disability and Home Care department that ran the home. The union, the Public Service Association, got involved.
Initially the problems were put down to personality clashes. But eventually the department appointed an independent consultant who carried out a three-month investigation. No staff member was formally told of the result and they fear the report has been buried.
Between them the staff, who are not particularly well-paid to begin with, have lost a lot of income.
In the middle of this, the manager was promoted. The manager remained in the house but some workers were offered a chance to move. They dug their heels in, on principle. Eventually the manager was put on temporary leave but that leave is coming to an end. The 18-month saga is still unresolved.
When accusations fly about inappropriate or abusive behaviour, everyone’s rights must be protected. No manager with a brusque manner should lose reputation and job without the most thorough investigation.
It is possible anger-management courses and such can help to modify a person’s intimidatory style. But so often it seems the rights of the bully boss to maintain position and status are found to be superior to the rights of the underlings to enjoy a workplace free of intimidation. So often the bully’s rights to privacy are found to be superior to the workers’ rights to know the results of investigations into their complaints.
Anyone who has ever participated in the process known as 360-degree feedback is familiar with the often perverse outcomes. It is a process by which managers are subjected to blisteringly frank and anonymous written evaluations by their peers and subordinates. The more colleagues condemn a manager for irrationality or temper, or abysmal people-management skills, the more meteoric the manager’s rise up the ladder seems to be. The greater the consensus, the faster the elevation.
Weight of numbers is not everything in weighing up complaints about a boss. Leaders do not need to win popularity contests; they need to win their subordinates’ respect. But when most workers complain that a boss is a bully, attention must be paid to their rights. Bullies should not always get their way.