Advice & News

October 8, 2021

Managing the Bully in the Middle


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The impacts of bullying on the workplace are unmistakable. We shouldn't excuse bullies but can perhaps come to understand their motivations and even find a measure of empathy, provided they endeavor to change. What is more difficult to understand, or excuse, are organizations and their leaders who won't take responsibility for ensuring a safe, civil workplace through deliberate action to respond to difficult employees. In one study, 24 percent of employees surveyed believed bullying and harassment are swept under the rug in their organization, 31 percent said the person they reported it to didn't take the issue seriously, and 48 percent felt the other party's interests took precedence.

Leaders are challenged to manage bullies, especially "bullies in the middle." "Bullies in the middle" may be a manager of a team within the leader's portfolio, a senior team member with leadership responsibilities, or someone with essential expertise coming from another department to support the leader's team. Or it may simply be a co-equal team member who behaves abrasively with co-workers.

I previously shared my perspective about leaders who enable bullies, which garnered significant reader attention. This issue matters greatly to employees. If you are such a leader, or wonder if you may be, rethink your attitude about such employees and respond differently. Ask yourself:

Is the Bully Your Buddy?
Bullies can be surprisingly effective in winning over their bosses through politically savvy behaviors. Bosses can grow to love their loyalty and hate complainers whom the bully has convinced them are the true problem. One study found a tendency for leaders to blame the victims of rude behavior and even find their behavior "deviant" and to be less likely to perceive perpetrators as deviant when they enjoyed a positive relationship with them and valued their performance.

Leaders must seek to connect with all team members in a balanced, objective way. While we may need a best friend at work, it is problematic for leaders to establish a special relationship with employees who report to them or to acquiesce to one based on an employee's solicitations. Are you being pulled into a bully's web and the narratives he or she shares, overtly or subtly, regarding the inadequacies of others? Stay attuned to the concerns of all employees and don't dismiss complaints offhand. Such complaints may not come directly to you so pay attention to signs of discomfort and tension you detect or become aware of indirectly. Make clear that your obligation is to all team members, not just the solicitous bully, and that you must take all employee concerns seriously.

Does the Bully Have You Fooled?
Are you enamored with a bully you deem to be a superstar? This attitude is costly. A Harvard Business School study found that "the profit consequences of so-called 'toxic workers' [especially 'top performers'] is a net negative." Declining to hire such workers can save a company more than twice as much as the increased output a top performer generates. The study recommends that employers "consider toxic and productivity outcomes together rather than relying on productivity alone as the criterion of a good hire." If you mistakenly hired a toxic employee, or toxic behaviors surface after hire, stop making excuses. Confront the individual and make clear that the behavior must change, or you will facilitate appropriate measures to address the situation.

Does the Bully Serve Your Self-Interest?
Have you neglected to deal with a difficult employee because he or she makes you look good? For example, perhaps you have given this person significant responsibility to direct a major project and later learn of the person's problematic behaviors. It is tempting to push forward anyway. It may be costly to halt the project, remove the person, or diminish their responsibilities. Delaying or halting the project may reflect badly on you. Perhaps you are reluctant to acknowledge shortcomings, much less your short-sightedness for relying on the person without paying attention to his or her ability to interact respectfully with team members.

It's time for self-reflection, integrity, and courage. Do a gut-check and acknowledge you may need to reassess the project, slow down a bit, and reset to better ensure project success. Show integrity in demonstrating attention to others' concerns and appropriate engagement with the bully to address behaviors. Have courage to halt progress until matters are addressed, recognizing your self-interest is better served by retaining others' loyalty, trust, and a good reputation (not to mention retaining good employees) than requiring others to further endure the bully without consequence.

Is the Bully Gatekeeping?
Gatekeeping bullies withhold information, limit access to resources, and engage in other manipulative actions that impact others' ability to succeed in their work. A bully is also gatekeeping when she interferes with or disrupts a leader's access to others with whom she works. Perhaps she is a middle manager leading a team within your portfolio and, therefore, truly "in the middle" between you and the employees she leads. You have appropriately delegated responsibility for addressing employee concerns to her. But when you become aware of team concerns and make inquiries, she responds with obfuscation, subtly digs about team members' character and competence, prideful statements about her superior competence, and manufactured indignation when challenged (among other behaviors).

Managing bullies begins with fostering a transparent, open culture where employee access to support does not solely run through the direct supervisor or even you as leader if employees prefer to take their concerns outside to HR or elsewhere. Make clear your paramount concern for employee wellbeing and open door for raising concerns. When coaching managers you supervise, reinforce your qualified preference for delegation where employees go to them for support and direction but not if they are being treated abusively. No leader enjoys 'carte blanche' dictatorial authority over direct reports.

Does the Bully Intimidate You?
The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that 14 percent of bullying targets are in a superior position to the bully. Is that you? Or are you a people pleaser who fears confrontation and passively allows bullies to abuse others? Realize as a leader that you have no less right to seek the same support as others when bullied. Contact your employee assistance program and seek counseling to address mental health concerns. Pursue leadership and conflict management training, consultation from HR and other relevant institutional support, and coaching from peers and other leaders you respect (among other strategies) to develop into a more confident, effective leader.

In your journey, take proactive steps to identify and end the enabling system you've fallen into and establish a new system for cultivating appropriate boundaries and expected behaviors for employees. Develop skills for difficult, supportive conversations to help employees adopt different mindsets and responses to the conditions that cause them to engage in problematic behaviors. One resource to consider is Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to End Unnecessary Roughness in the Workplace by Laura Crawshaw, also known as the "Boss Whisperer."

Is the Bully the Organization Lead?
Employees can believe, often with justification, that the organization lead who bullies, such as the CEO, President, or Chancellor, is untouchable. Yet, the organization lead has a boss too in the form of a board of directors or trustees which must take seriously its fiduciary obligations to oversee executive performance, workforce culture, and talent development. Boards can institute reporting and whistleblowing systems that require direct reporting to the board, among other measures. Ultimately, a board must instill employee confidence in its intolerance of inappropriate behaviors through unequivocal action to rectify leader misconduct.

There are many organizational enabling structures that support bullying and harassment. We can't place all responsibility on individual leaders. These leaders can, however, support a more civil, safe workplace culture by better managing bullies within their purview through the suggestions offered here, among others, and by taking seriously their obligation to create awareness up the chain of command where organizational culture, structures, and practices, foster conditions for bullying to continue.

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