August 27th, 2012

It’s a Mistake to Trust the Bully’s Boss to Stop the Bullying

Before people who are bullied search the internet for “workplace bullying” at a time before know they are bullied or what to call it, they make two common mistakes. They report the misconduct to HR and they tell their bully’s boss. The sequence varies, but relief coming from one or both sources is rare.

2012 WBI research shows that HR is effective at stopping your bullying in only 1.9% of cases. Telling the bully’s boss is similarly ineffective, providing relief in a mere 3.3% of cases, though 71% of targets did try.

Let’s explore two factors that make asking for help from the bully’s boss futile.

Factor 1: The Bully-Boss Relationship

Think about who likely hired the bully — that manager. What do you think made the bully appealing to that person — the bully’s “style.” That style is aggressive, “results-driven,” direct or blunt, and intense. Though these qualities sound virtuous, when expressed with no limits, they can create a living hell for those subjected to irrelevant pressure. Regardless of how positively the bully framed her or his future contributions at the time of hire, those traits are all negatives for the selected targets of abuse.

An alternative is that the bully was already in place when a new manager came to the unit. Veteran bullies know how to ingratiate themselves with (kiss up to) people in authority so they will be seen in a positive light (think about a halo hovering over their heads). The new boss buys in completely and even lets the bully warn about the “troublemakers” on the team. Those workers would include you, the long-term target. So, you, the target, are in a one-down position from the start.

Perplexing Loyalty

It matters little if the boss or bully was hired first, if the relationship between the two has had time to grow, you can say nothing that will dissuade the boss to see the bully’s destructive impact on people and work itself. You are bringing bad news about someone considered indispensable. It has all been engineered deliberately by the bully. Cognitive science tells us that disconfirming information is ignored. The bully boss brain can only see the good in the bully. She or he does not know you as well and so trusts the bully to report on all workplace matters from the trenches.

Your account about their friend is not perceived as true. You are seen as “disgruntled,” “whining,” or “excuse making.” Furthermore, the bully has warned the boss about what people like you might say about them in the future. The bullies have inoculated her or him to discount any version of reality they have provided. You have been prejudged as a liar. Bosses are loyal to other bosses. Bullying evidence pales in comparison to that bond.

A director of the federal agency (formerly MMS) told us why he would not stop or even admonish a bully who ruled mercilessly over an entire division: “He is a great conversationalist and is a lunch buddy.” Exact quote. No kidding. You can’t make this up.

Too Fearful to Correct

To explain the bully’s boss fecklessness, consider that she or he might be afraid of the subordinate bully who works for them. That might mean actual physical fear. Most people loathe confrontation. It’s common to fear confronting, let alone disciplining, the bully. The bosses worry about predictable dramas by the bully each time she or he is caught in a lie or exposed as a workplace saboteur.

Anticipation of the emotional explosion is enough to keep a boss in check and inactive. Sometimes the outburst is coupled with threats of a lawsuit. Our experience is clear; employers fear lawsuits from bullies more than lawsuits launched by those hurt by the bullies.

Factor 2: Boss Doesn’t Know What To Do

Doing nothing based on relationships is political. Alternately, the bully’s boss may do nothing because he or she doesn’t know what action to take. With so little training for new managers and the poor quality of mentors, the lack of skill is not surprising.

When targets describe their dispute with their bully to the manager, the most frequent reply is: “Work it out between yourselves.” This is wrong-headed. Managers need to manage. They are ducking responsibility by trying to make victims solve the problem they neither deserved or invited.

Resolving bullying incidents is part of the job, albeit one of toughest parts. Bullying challenges unskilled managers. They misinterpret the situation as a war between two parties with equal power (if bullying is among coworkers) and mislabel it as mere conflict. Solutions to conflict are different than for bullying (which is a form of violence).

The bully’s bosses are afraid of emotion-charged interactions and worry about the messiness of it all. They use worst case thinking — that they will have to throw themselves physically between two combatants. Of course, that’s not the kind of intervention required. The altercations have passed by the time the bully’s boss learns about them. Despite the safety of a delayed and detached intervention, they still imagine the worst. It blocks action. The result is that nothing gets done. The target is frustrated.

Doing nothing is not taking a neutral position. When one party is abused and the other is the abuser, there is no acceptable middle ground. Doing nothing supports the abuser by showing indifference to the plight of the abused worker. It makes the boss an accomplice — whether by deliberate choice or sloppy inattention.

Tips for mangers who need to deal with workplace bullying issues are found in our DVD A Primer for Managers and in our book, The Bully-Free Workplace (Wiley, 2011).


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This entry was posted on Monday, August 27th, 2012 at 12:11 pm and is filed under Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education, WBI Surveys & Studies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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