Last week a review of the culture at NHS Highland suggested hundreds of staff had faced inappropriate behaviour at work, and the issue of bullying has once again hit the headlines.
I have worked for some great managers and some horrendous bullies. I’ve been yelled at, given impossible deadlines and watched a friend dodge an angle-poise lamp hurled across the room. Yet such physical intimidation was not as bad as one bully I worked for, whose vicious vendettas were carried out calmly and quietly in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
I have also been a manager myself and, until you have had that experience, I don’t think you can quite appreciate the difficulties of managing people. HBullyingow do you tackle under-performance without the individual feeling victimised? What is the difference between robust management and rampant bullying?
By far the best advice I have ever read was produced in response to a bullying scandal at the BBC, back in 2013. I suspect few people read beyond the headlines at the time, but the report by a barrister called Dinah Rose had a very helpful checklist for managers and employees. The report is called ‘Respect At Work’ and it is available here:
Rose outlined three categories of bullies: ‘covert’, ‘visible’ and ‘renowned’. The covert bullies attack their employees verbally so that there is no record. They give highly personal and negative feedback on performance but don’t talk specifics. They cancel one-to-one meetings and discourage the individual going for promotion.
Visible bullies regularly shout in front of the whole team as a way of showing their power. They feel confident enough to rip apart the work of an individual in front of their colleagues, may threaten to ‘make or break their career’ and bad-mouth them to their peers. Each team member lives in fear that today the attack will focus on them and spend significant time finding ways to limit the effect of the bullying.
Finally there is the renowned bully, which is depressingly common. Successful grievances have often already been taken out against the bully but they continue to work in the organisation. New joiners are warned to beware of them. HR say ‘we are aware of this person’ and the local trades union has an extensive file on them. Most damaging of all, external contacts and suppliers know about them and refer to them as a bully.
Interestingly, in my experience, high pressure environments and bullying do not go hand-in-hand. The worst bullies I have encountered in my career have been in workplaces where the timescales for each project were fairly long and where there should have been a fun and creative atmosphere. In all cases the individual had been promoted beyond their capabilities.
Failure to manage performance properly can often create the bullies of the future. One former colleague made the lives of her female team-mates hell by bursting into tears whenever she felt she wasn’t getting the best work on offer. Her managers crumpled in the face of her pretty tears rather than explaining why it was not her turn this time or what she could do to win the promotion another time. As a result her rise up the career ladder was swift, whilst her colleagues were left with the scraps. And once someone without the necessary skills reaches a position of power, they hold your career prospects in their hand and there is very little you can do about it.
So we are left in a position where it is essential that managers feel empowered to address poor performance without facing counter accusations of bullying but we also need mechanisms by which employees can feel protected if they are being unfairly victimised.
As Dinah Rose pointed out, a direct, honest approach to appraisals and performance reviews would be a refreshing change from the vague and seemingly unstructured meetings that are common. All employees have little tolerance for colleagues who are seen as not pulling their weight over a period of time and expect it to be dealt with.
Good managers ensure their team know what is expected of them, have regular conversations on progress and credit their staff for great work. They acknowledge that they are not perfect and foster an atmosphere where the whole team feels part of a common mission. All ideas are worthy and encouraged. If a mistake is made the individual doesn’t need a public humiliation, they need the team to pull together to fix it so that the project can move on. Everyone feels happier and more productive in a workplace where their manager and colleagues have their back rather than one where they are going to be stabbed in the back.
The bullies I have had the misfortune to work for had absolutely no idea that they were perceived as such. They seemed to view themselves as kind-hearted with a robust management style. The problem is that some of the best people I have worked for were kind-hearted with a robust management style. The way to spot the difference is not by asking the individual but by watching their teams. Employees put in 100% effort for those managers who inspire them. For everyone else, they clock in and clock out, dream of a better life and leave as soon as they can.
Eleanor Bradford is a former BBC Scotland health correspondent and now works for a communications agency