Friday Rant: Office Bullies & Tyrants

I'm very happy to say that the vast majority of offices I've worked in have been harmonious and productive, but not everyone is so lucky. Over the years, I have informally counseled dozens of friends and associates when they have been at their wits end over what to do about peers and superiors whose behavior is abusive, angry, intimidating and alienating. The biggest irony surrounding this sort of behavior has been management's frequent reluctance to address such issues considering the extent to which they impact productivity and even corporate image.

Bullies are by far the hardest to deal with because they tend to single out one individual at a time and can be nearly impossible to catch in the act -- creating a he-said-she-said stalemate. There are numerous web sites that offer advice to victims of bullying, but suffice it to say that unless management is willing to take this malaise seriously, most victims end up leaving their jobs. This an immeasurable loss to the organization as well as the individual. And it doesn't go away. The bully who remains will always choose a new victim. The challenge for line managers is to closely observe these patterns over time and stop the bleeding when history repeats itself.

Other aberrant types of office behavior that damage productivity and creativity may be a bit easier to remedy. This week's WSJ places the perpetrators of damaging behavior on the couch saying "We have all worked with at least one office pain in the neck, someone whose irritating and unfathomable behavior annoys co-workers and wrecks teamwork. These foibles often persist beyond reason because they are so deep-rooted, having been learned in the families of people's childhoods. Amid a growing focus on workplace quality, some managers and coaches are now using new techniques to identify the childhood origins of harmful behavior at work and then rout out those patterns through training or outright bans on bad behavior." The upshot here is that many "jerks" are unaware of their behavior and are amenable to changing once it's brought to their attention.

The Journal describes how "Sylvia LaFair, a White Haven, Pa., leadership coach and psychologist has identified 13 different patterns of office behavior -- and the family dynamics that likely shaped them. Among the types are the 'persecutor''who micromanages or abuses others ... The 'denier' [who] pretends problems don't exist ... 'Avoiders' [who] are aware of problems but won't talk about them ... The 'super-achiever' [who] is driven to excel at everything, breeding resentment by walking over other people ... [and] the 'martyr''[who] does his or her work and everybody else's too" and endlessly complains about it. But the most curious example given was that of a company president who would "wonder why he got so little reaction from co-workers in meetings he ran. 'People would just hold back and not say anything' when he finished talking ... He would wonder, 'Why are you just sitting there?' With coaching, he realized he was speaking loudly and aggressively, a pattern he acquired as a kid at the family dinner table. As the oldest of four children, he was often told to be quiet. Then, as his three siblings grew older, he had to fight for attention. 'Whoever could speak the loudest would be heard,' he says. While being an aggressive talker helped him back then, it was intimidating to co-workers and 'shut everybody down,' ... Conscious of the pattern, he speaks more softly now, asks questions and listens, saying, 'OK, tell me what's on your mind,' he says." I hate to be a curmudgeon about this stuff, but knowing so many talented people who are out of work, I can't understand how these types got to where they are and kept their jobs as long as they have.

But the best story in the article is about "a financial-services firm [that] has a no jerks rule [whose] chairman, president and chief executive ... [who] when he speaks to groups of prospective recruits, ... warns them: If you're a jerk, don't come, because we'll figure it out. It will be worse for you than it is for us." He also hangs "No Jerks" rules posters around the office. This reminds me of when IBM, back in the 60's, posted "THINK" signs all over their offices that largely had the opposite effect.

William Busch

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