The 4 Words Every Leader Dreads

By Heather Campbell

Angry BossBy Heather Campbell >>

The four words that every leader dreads hearing: “You are a bully”.

Tough words to hear. And a tough topic to discuss – talking about bullying is still something of a taboo in many organisations.

No one thinks bullying is okay; no one wants to experience it; no one wants to believe they are guilty of it – and too often no one wants to talk about it. Indeed, I’ve started this post and then abandoned it several times because the whole area of bullying just feels so negative – by the time I’ve written a few sentences I find myself wanting to move away from the topic!

But, as specialists in the field of leadership communication, we need to talk about bullying – both in writing and in our practice. Because it is solely through the way that leaders communicate – or fail to communicate – that bullying occurs.

So, let’s get it out there. The reality is that bullying is disturbingly common. A CIPD study cited in October’s issue of People Management found that, in the last two years, 15% of employees had experienced bullying or harassment, and another 33% said they had witnessed it.

This matters because that’s almost 50% of people in organisations either experiencing or witnessing bullying – and that means almost 50% of people are being negatively affected to a greater or lesser extent. And that’s almost 50% of people whose performance will be affected, either directly – driven by fear, demotivation and stress – or indirectly, as they spend time talking about the bullying behaviour and sharing stories about what they have seen.

But leaders don’t want to believe that they might be bullies. The same People Management article reports that the majority of bullies have no idea they are seen as such.

My experience of working with leaders bears this out. They may see themselves as hard taskmasters, but not bullies. They may believe they don’t suffer fools gladly, but they’re not bullies. They may even see themselves as rather witty, and be aghast that anyone could mistake their teasing as bullying behaviour.

The problem is made worse because one person’s bully is another person’s perfectly reasonable manager. And of course, it’s not only leaders who are bullies – they are found throughout organisations. And many leaders are bullied by the people they lead. Bullying is a complex area.

But is there any chance that people could experience you as a bully – even on occasion? Here are some surprising communication styles that can easily be interpreted as “bullying”, even though the “bully” has no intention of having such negative impact.

1. Disapproving silence

There are managers who never say anything negative – but they let people know they aren’t happy just because of the way they are silent. Their silence radiates anger, disapproval or disappointment.

These are often individuals who are afraid to tackle the situation head-on, or who believe that their silence is keeping their anger, disapproval or disappointment hidden and have no idea that it is leaking out so visibly to all around them.

2. Inconsistency

Many managers bounce in full of the joys of life one day, and are ticking time-bombs the next. Inconsistency can be extremely difficult for the people around the manager to deal with.

All too often, there are one or two individuals who are seen by others as close to the inconsistent individual. These poor people are put in the awkward position of being the ‘safety gauge’ and get inundated with questions like “Is it okay to speak to X today?” or “What mood is X in today?” as others seek to work out whether or not the manager in question is ‘safe’ to approach today.

3. Challenge

These leaders are rife in business – and sadly are often found on the Board. They are the ones who enjoy putting people through the mill when they come to them with a proposal. And they don’t care if their challenge is carried out one-to-one or in front of many.

Sometimes the entire Board join together in a joint bullying exercise, grilling senior managers who come to present a business case. I have coached many senior leaders who were preparing to make a presentation to the Board and were absolutely terrified at the prospect. These weren’t inexperienced or weak leaders – just leaders who were scared of the well-known Board grilling that was awaiting them.

The ‘challengers’ don’t see themselves as bullies – they are simply making sure the proposal has been well thought-through and believe that the people who are presenting to them should be questioned thoroughly. Of course, both of these things are true – but it’s the aggressive manner in which the questioning is carried out that causes the problems.

4. Undermining questions and comments

There are plenty of leaders who, often because of their own insecurities, undermine people around them through the questions they ask and the comments they make.

“Didn’t you realise that would happen?” / “Leaving early again?” / “Uh-oh, now X is going to point out the problems” – the raft of undermining comments and questions that are possible could take up a blog in themselves.

The leader who communicates in this way often feels that the people around them are too sensitive if anyone objects to the comments and, indeed, as a one-off they are harmless enough. But, used regularly and consistently, undermining comments can do a lot of damage.

5. Making jokes at the expense of others

This can be a tough one to deal with because a bit of fun at work is a good thing, isn’t it? Of course it is, except when the person experiencing the humour doesn’t find it funny.

I can even remember a time when I worked in a team where we all got on incredibly well. Initially, there was a lot of fun in the team and we loved making sharp quips at each others’ expense. But, as time went on, we all started to feel uneasy and recognised that there was almost a team sense of bullying each  other. It got to the point where each of us in the team was scared to speak because we knew what was coming. In the end, we agreed that the sharp quips had to stop – a case of mutual team bullying was occurring.

If you want to stay “the joker” rather than becoming “the bully”, notice whether people genuinely laugh at your jokes, or if their laughter is tinged with something more akin to embarrassment or hurt.

These are just some of the ways in which communication can be interpreted as bullying. Even if you don’t feel that you are at the stage where anyone could consider that you are bullying them, remember that all the communication styles outlined above can disturb people far more deeply than you realise. It will affect their relationship with you, and the results they achieve through their work.

If you recognise yourself in any of these, it may be worth reflecting on whether it’s time to modify your communication habits.

Have you ever been on either side of the ‘bullying fence’? We’d love to hear your experiences/views on this contentious topic. Leave us a comment below or tweet us @CommsMasters.

Image courtesy of bplanet /

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