Bully boss or bad leader

It’s been very frustrating to hear of the toxic workplace created by Canada’s ex-governor general, Julie Payette. Last month’s independent report details examples of “yelling, screaming, aggressive conduct, demeaning comments and public humiliations.” Forty-three of the staff members interviewed described the culture Payette created as “hostile or negative.” Twenty-six people called their workplace “toxic” or “poisoned.” Twelve people said Payette created a “climate/reign of fear/terror.”

This public example of abusive leadership spotlights bullying bosses. It’s abhorrent behavior that’s still way too common. A 2017 U.S. survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found 63% of participants have been bullied, witnessed bullying, or believe it happens. 40% of those bullied suffered adverse health consequences. The report concludes “these proportions are epidemic-level” and “bullying is an occupational health hazard.” Nearly 2/3 of bullies were bosses.

There’s often a fine line between a bad boss and a bully boss. Bad bosses are often good people doing a bad job. Bully bosses usually have complex psychological issues or badly twisted personal values. Bullyonline provides this definition; “Bullying is conduct that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate, or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform.”

Sometimes people suffering abuse think it’s their fault, or they brought it on themselves in some way. Rarely is that true. Bullies are often skilled manipulators. They revel in playing mind games with their victims.

Sometimes ineffective leaders aren’t bullies, but their extremely weak leadership fosters a poisonous workplace by failing to deal with conflict or not addressing toxic team members.

Is your boss a bully? Click here to rate your boss’s behavior and some suggested responses to handle them.

People aspire to leadership roles for a wide variety of reasons. Some bully bosses crave power and control of others to assuage their insecurities. Some bully bosses were abused by others and think that’s what power positions are. And some were slowly corrupted by power to become bully bosses.

Many bully bosses dehumanize and objectify others as “human capital” or assets with skin. In his book, The Soul of the Firm, C. William Pollard writes, “there is a lesson for all of us in the Peanuts cartoon where Linus announces to his cranky sister, Lucy, that he is going to be a doctor. “You, a doctor?” she asks. “How can you be a doctor? You don’t love mankind.” Linus replied, “I do too love mankind. It’s the people I can’t stand.”