“He refuses to collaborate!” Ellen was so frustrated with her boss. Even though Ellen was a tenured leader with a successful track record, her boss still felt it was necessary to micro manage her work, and, even, her team. Just as or more difficult, he was verbally abusive to her and others. When she went on vacation or traveled for business, it was an ideal time for her boss to undermine her leadership. Showing up unannounced to meetings, berating the efforts of team members and criticizing Ellen to others was his style.
Ellen was stuck. It was a miserable experience for everyone to endure the tirades and shifting moods of her boss. However, like many bullies, he did an excellent job of managing up. Many who were not under his leadership, saw him as a great strategist, mentor and developer of people. He was rapidly ascending the organization and seemed destined to soon sit on the organization’s senior leadership team. On her team, fear was the most prevalent emotion and it was impacting Ellen. She knew if she did not correct the situation that the fear that enveloped her would soon impact her performance and her own ability to lead.
She sat across the table at the coffee shop telling her story. In her long career, she had, fortunately, never encountered someone so difficult. What options should she consider? She had always loved her work and her organization but she wasn’t sleeping and felt sick to her stomach every morning on the commute to work. She was tempted to leave, but she had too much invested to just walk away. Beyond that, she truly cared about the people on her team and she loved her organization. However, she had hit a wall and could not find a way forward. What could she do?
Ellen worked with her coach to create a plan to better manage her boss. Avoiding him and pretending not to be fazed by his actions had proven both unproductive and ineffective. Her coached suggested that she attempt to understand why her boss behaved the way he did. Stephen Covey’s 5th habit of highly successful people is to “Seek first to understand and then be understood.” Ellen’s integrity required her to genuinely try to understand her boss’s point of view. Was he truly dissatisfied with performance and inept at communicating or did his own insecurities dictate that he intimidate his staff into compliance.
With great courage, Ellen sat down in her one-on-one meeting with her boss and asked about his observations of her and the team. When it was evident that he could not produce a viable concern, she then attempted to set boundaries. Her first request was collaboration in setting strategy and assigning tasks for the team. Her boss quickly refused stating that collaborating with her is inefficient. She had attempted the first important step in managing a bully – standing up to his behavior and setting boundaries. Often times, that is enough to change the pattern and relationship, but unfortunately, this time, that was not the case.
Finding herself at the crossroads of either resigning or resolving the situation, Ellen knew she had to reach out for help within the organization. Her boss’s behavior was not in keeping with organizational culture and she could not allow her team to be abused. They were her responsibility.
Ellen, a very senior executive met regularly with several C suite leaders including the one in her chain of command. It was time to talk to her boss’s leader. To prepare for the meeting, Ellen carefully documented the instances of abuse including the date, people present and the exact behavior of her boss. Her clear documentation helped to show a pattern of behavior.
As she had hoped, the C suite leader listened to her concerns, conducted his own investigation and took appropriate action, relieving the boss of his leadership responsibility of Ellen’s team. What could have been a cultural disaster for the organization was resolved and the team was preserved and the people on it were retained. Of course, every story does not end that well.
Maybe you find yourself in a similar situation. Here are some suggested steps to find your way forward:
- Don’t panic and don’t succumb to fear. That sounds easy but not so much when you are in the middle of it. Fear shuts us down and makes us incapable of action. Bullies count on that response. Be courageous and rise above the fear.
- Document carefully the setting, the behaviors and the words. At some point, you will need to share your observations with the bully or someone else and you want to be sure you are able to clearly communicate the situation.
- Seek counsel and avoid isolation. Find someone trustworthy to talk to – a mentor, advisor or coach – who can help you navigate resolution and keeping you from feeling isolated. Isolation is a tool of bullies and you want to eliminate it from his toolbox.
- Stand up to the bully. This advice goes all the way back to the school playground, but it is true in career situations, too. Bullies bully people they think will not fight back. Set your boundaries and make it clear, regardless of consequences, you will not be treated that way.
- Report the issue to leadership if you are not able to resolve it directly with the individual. Most all organizations understand the seriousness of workplace bullying, if only from a liability perspective. Organizations with healthy cultures know that one bully can undermine the culture quickly. If you state your well documented case and do not find someone within the organization to help you, then it’s time to leave. It’s not the culture for you.
When organizations insist that everyone be treated with honor, dignity and respect, and hold leaders and others accountable for doing so, they can avoid situations like Ellen’s. Remarkable cultures value the contributions of everyone and steward and sustain their talent. If you don’t work for an organization like that, then find one or create your own.