Adults in the Workplace
Bully in the Workplace
I can't think of a single place I worked where I didn't witness or experience some sort of toxic behaviour—and I was in the workplace for 40 years.
Initially unskilled, I worked a few weeks here, half a year there, at manufacturing companies, sales offices, retailers and restaurants. In later years, trained by then in graphic design and editing, I was employed almost 18 years for an international giant.
I enjoyed many of my experiences; however, in almost every one of my workplaces there were individuals who wanted to make my life miserable. In each case, I had done nothing I'm aware of to offend these people, often didn't even work in the same department. I was the victim of gossip, snide remarks and isolation. In a couple of office jobs, people tried to sabotage my work and blame me for poor quality (thankfully, I kept copies of files—they proved my case).
One time, on my first day on a job in a factory (I was about 19, and it was a summer position) several older women played a cruel conveyor-belt trick causing pile-ups of rejections that had me running ragged for almost an hour. When, panting in exhaustion, I finally looked up and at them further up the line, I realized they had all been watching with amusement. They had been deliberately leaving out one of the required packs, causing the weighing machine to reject the boxes. One of the women stuck her finger up and mouthed "fuck off." The others glared at me with slitted eyes.
I am sure you understand what I'm getting at. I'll wager you, too, were minding your own business somewhere, doing your work in between making small talk by the coffee maker. And you, like me, ended up wondering what on earth you did to make this clique or that boss dislike you so. The answer is likely...nothing. The reason generally lies in issues that include callousness, jealousy and selfishness on their part.
In the June 2017 edition of Psychology Today, Katherine Schreiber quotes a specialist, Christine Porath, as saying that toxic behaviour is common in the workplace. Ms Porath left a dream job early in her career due to a noxious environment and, 20 years later at Georgetown University, she studies and catalogues behaviours that have poisoned the atmosphere for working people: acts from mockery, to manipulation, to gaslighting (explained below), to gossip and more. Ms. Porath is the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. It may be worth bringing her book to the attention of your HR department. (Refer to the Further Reading tab for links.)
Here's a quote from the Psychology Today article by Ms Schreiber. "One thing for sure about toxic people: whatever insult, injury, or confusion they've just inflicted is either your fault or a molehill you're making a mountain out of. They never take responsibility for their actions. They may even see themselves as trying to help you out."
Throughout my site are various survival strategies for bullied adults and kids. Below is advice to consider right now (not all suggestions will fit your particular situation):
Set boundaries. For this, you’ll need to be assertive and perhaps include management or Human Resources.
If there is friction between you and some fellow workers, identify the problem and have a private talk on how to best make things work.
Limit on-one-one time or ask to be moved.
Consider schedule changes, if possible, such as working from home or working different hours.
If you are being mistreated in your place of work, professional help is also a way to resolve deep-seated problems. This may come in the form of HR personnel, an understanding manager, a psychologist, a minister, or other such professional.
However, don’t underestimate the power of emotional support from the fellow-bullied (they truly understand what this is like). Find a buddy.
Kinds of bullying in the workplace
If someone you work with:
1. knowingly withholds a piece of information that is relevant to your job,
2. continually backtracks on commitments,
3. tells lies (such as blaming you for something not your fault),
4. sabotages your work (sometimes by 1, 2 and 3 above),
5. gossips about you,
6. accepts credit for work that you did,
7. and other similar actions,
then this is intentional betrayal.
In Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace, Dennis and Michelle Reina discuss the effects of this treatment as energy-depleting and trust-destroying: "betrayal clouds people's thinking, saps their motivation, and derails creativity...production plummets...people spend time and energy protecting themselves." The Reinas describe the dimensions of trust as being in communication, character and capability. It may be worth bringing their book to the attention of your HR department.
Remember, sometimes behaviours are unintentional. A colleague may genuinely forget to relay an important piece of information, for instance, or it may be part of someone's job as middle manager to reduce your hours. Such incidents do not have malicious intent.
Upset can occur when a colleague misreads your emails or takes what you said the wrong way. Here's a funny example that happened with a previous manager and me. I emailed him about the need to again upload files to a print house, because there had been a glitch during the previous attempt. I knew the printers hadn't receive the PDFs. Here's what I wrote:
"Alan, I resent that job of last week. What a nuisance."
When I happily walked into his office an hour later, he looked at me with alarm and asked:
"Why are you resenting some work from last week? What work? What's wrong?"
He thought I begrudged some job I'd been asked to do, because he'd misread "resent." And, once I looked at what I'd written, I could see how that had happened. I guess I should have typed "re-sent' instead of "resent."
When your communications are taken the wrong way, conflict can occur. So, if a colleague, who is usually personable, suddenly looks annoyed, ask what's wrong. It may be nothing you did, but it may also be some innocent action that caused concern.
The Bully Boss
The bully boss can be an individual, or can be the company itself due to the trickle-down effect of unreasonable company leaders. The workplace culture created by senior executives can be seen as the bully boss.
In my last job, I began with an inspirational boss, and later on acquired a horrible one. I stopped looking forward to my work as I became more and more discouraged.
I've learned the hard way over the years that there are not only visibly and audibly grumpy managers out there, but also that some are utterly charming on the surface and completely rotten underneath.
Take this horrible boss I just mentioned. Before becoming the leader of our department, D and I worked well together. D was one of the specialists I created graphic designs for, and I enjoyed D's jokes and chatter about weekends. We got along, until my mentor-boss left. D took over the department and I was initially glad until, very soon, I realized D's management style was very different.
For example, one of my responsibilities had always been to post our new work in the staff database and client site. But within a few days, I discovered the work I'd posted that week had been deleted, and added again under D's name. Puzzled, I said nothing. The following week, I again added the finals of work, and again D rubbed them off, this time phoning to order me to stop posting them. From then on, the posts were to be in D's name, in order to raise D's profile.
So first, D deleted my work without telling me, and second, D wanted the work only in D's name.
This was the start of many non-communications where D did something that involved my work and/or schedule without talking to me first. Over the next few years, I almost missed some important deadlines I had not been made aware of; missed meetings about new projects which could have used my input (and in which bad decisions were made because the attendees did not have the knowledge I could have provided); was not asked to be involved in presenting our work in booths at events, because D wanted to be there.
I was made invisible in every aspect of my job while D took the credit for all the work. I'd like to be clear here that it's not that I wanted credit, per se, but that people eventually forgot I existed when in fact, I often knew more about a project than D did, because I was closely involved from start to finish and could predict any issues before they happened. My talents were wasted, and the lack of communication sometimes meant I had to dash around like crazy behind the scenes to fix D's messes—and if I hadn't, I know I'd have been blamed for those messes. I was on tenterhooks much of the time. It was exhausting.
See the brief article about my experience in The Globe and Mail:
In contrast to this charming but devious snake, a boss in a previous company had been curt, cranky and intense. However, he was also a fair and helpful person who ensured employees had what they needed to do their work. Although it was impossible to make friendly small talk—he was just not interested in people's personal lives—if we went to him with a problem, he immediately came to our aid. And he had our backs.
So, it's possible to have a moody boss that is a good boss.
Let's talk now about moody bosses who are NOT great to work for: the screamers, the nit-pickers, the demeaning, sarcastic, unreasonable, cruel, you-name-it kind of managers.
I'll begin with some statistics. Researcher Anna Nyberg reports that "If you have a good boss, you have at least a 20 percent lower risk [of heart attack] and if you stay with your boss for four years, you have at least a 39 percent lower risk." Robert Hogan found this consistent across recent decades and whether the employees are postal workers, milk truck drivers, school teachers...about 75 percent of the workforce reports that their immediate supervisor is the most stressful part of their job.
The irony is that mean bosses are particularly widespread in, of all places, hospitals. Researchers following almost 3,000 US medical students found that most had been demeaned by superiors, including by the doctors who oversaw their work with patients!
As well, doctors often treat nurses badly (90 percent suffer continuous belittlement).
According to Robert Sutton's Good Boss, Bad Boss, part of the problem is that, like other human beings, bosses don't see their own flaws and do fancy themselves as better than the rest. Sutton's book asks: "What drives so many bosses to be seen as so cruel by so many followers?" Sutton says that bad bosses ruin their followers' mental health, provoking anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. He does, however, give many helpful suggestions for any boss reading his book.
Sutton goes on: "The best bosses dance on the edge of overconfidence, but a healthy dose of self-doubt and humility saves them from turning arrogant and pigheaded. Bosses who fail to strike this balance are incompetent, dangerous to follow, and downright demeaning.
"Consider a talkative senior executive who led a project team meeting I attended at a large corporation. I'll call her Roberta. She joked that a key to her success was that although she appeared to be listening to others, she usually wasn't. Rather, she used the time to 'reload,' to prepare what to say next. Roberta's joke described her behaviour all too well. She spent much of the day spewing out short speeches that were irrelevant to the team's task or to what we had been talking about before she interjected (after all, she wasn't listening, she was 'reloading')...This blabbering boss learned little from the smart people in the room, gave them no useful direction, and undermined their dignity, as none felt heard or respected...Roberta's opinions were so strongly held that it was impossible to penetrate them with opposing opinions, logic, or facts."
Good Boss, Bad Boss has a helpful chapter on wise bosses versus smart bosses. Worth reading.
If I'd read Good Boss, Bad Boss while still at my last job, I think I'd have anonymously highlighted the parts that described my manager, and sent it in an internal office envelope with the name written in disguised handwriting. Then again, our department was not large and likely it would be easy to figure out who'd sent it : - ) Motto: Always best to suggest good-advice books to HR to pass along, if your company is large enough. If it isn't, and if enough of your colleagues feel the same way, try approaching the boss in a gentle and tactful manner, armed with suggestions from the book. Really, there is no one answer to bad bosses: every situation is different.
There Are Good Bosses Too
Good Boss, Bad Boss also gives us examples of good bosses.
Sutton mentions that Tommy Lasorda served the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, first as player, then coach and manager for many years. He tells us that Lasorda once said, "I believe that managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly, you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it." Sutton calls this Lasorda's Law, a delicate balance that every good boss seeks between managing too much and too little.
"You may believe that watching your people closely is helping, but...you could be living in a fool's paradise. Nosy bosses also undermine performance by asking annoying and useless questions that interrupt people's work. And followers who are closely monitored become less creative because—to avoid screwing up in front of the boss—they stick to tried-and-true paths. The best management is sometimes less management."
I'll quote from Robert Sutton's book one more time, re good bosses:
"I saw the power of psychological safety at a large media company. The CEO was determined to drive fear out of his company. One executive had spent a year launching a new magazine. It flopped, which would have resulted in a demotion or a firing in past regimes. Instead, the CEO stood up at a gathering of the firm's top executives and congratulated the failed executive for her courage and skill, for doing the wrong thing in the right way. He emphasized that the ill-fated decision wasn't just hers; senior management backed it, and the magazine failed despite great content and marketing. In the following days, every executive I spoke with in the firm portrayed the CEO's actions as a watershed event, a visible step toward driving out fear." Sutton goes on to say "forgive and remember" means learning from mistakes.
The Bully Colleague
Interdependence is an inescapable and necessary fact of organizational life. But it still drives most of us crazy at times. The resulting entanglements condemn us to endure each other's quirks, intrusions, annoying habits, clashing opinions, petty demands, and pathetic incompetence—and force others to ensure our imperfections in return. Jean-Paul Sartre was right when he said, "Hell is just other people"; but bosses need people who can excel in such hell. People who can't or won't play well with others drag down performance.
I once worked as an office temp. A admin assistant (I'll call her Jill) and I were given a complicated and tedious task to share, in which we were to untangle a mess of client data into manageable and understandable sections, and then phone over 500 clients to ensure our information was up-to-date.
I was allotted the lion's share, 350, and in between tending to assigned sales people's urgent needs for transcribed letters, completed reports, forms, orders, etc., I had to find time for this huge project, because a director needed it done by an important deadline. Jill was to complete her 150 and pass them to me to add to my collection and sort into alphabetical order.
I worked on my batch steadily, calling clients, writing up new information, deleting old addresses and so on.
Occasionally I asked Jill how she was faring, mentioning that I hoped she could finish her 150 and then help me, because I was afraid I wouldn't manage all of mine before the required date. She told me she was working on hers in between other responsibilities (as was I). A week before the deadline, I asked her to give me what she'd finished thus far. She refused, saying she wanted to do them all first. I explained that I had to begin compiling the names and adding the data to a spreadsheet. But she kept putting me off.
Three days before the deadline, in desperation, I approached the office manager. She discovered that Jill had completed only around 50 on her assigned list.
But guess who got into trouble? Me.
The office manager complained that I should have told her this was going on. I responded that Jill assured me she was working on her batch, and that she'd had more than enough opportunities. After all, I'd completed 350 in the same amount of time. This fell on deaf ears and the director complained to my agency that I'd failed to meet a deadline.
I still recall how unfair this was and, looking back, I realize the office manager and the admin assistant were friends. The manager blamed me to save Jill.
That experience made me begin keeping records of anything and everything, and I made a point of always keeping people informed. And if I wasn't receiving information from someone, I would ask for a quick meeting with all participants and bring up the importance of knowing the status of a job to ensure everyone knew who was, and was not, finished in their part. This actually worked well, and without any finger pointing. Everyone understood who should be doing what, which meant shirkers couldn't shirk!