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Subtle Forms of Bullying By Leaders

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No matter where it occurs bullying is just wrong on so many levels. A particular challenge in the workplace is that bullying is sometimes masked as toughness, strong leadership, assertiveness, results orientation or even an invented crisis.

In his excellent work published in Coping With Difficult People and Coping With Difficult Bosses, Robert Bramson examined the behaviors of workplace bullies and how to deal with them. Both books are worth reading.

Most likely we have all experienced being bullied (maybe even guilty of bullying ourselves) but let me share a few of my own experiences, observations and situations presented by those I have coached:

A CEO gives a directive that, though legal, is in a grey area of ethics. A subordinate raises concerns and is told, "I am the CEO and you are bordering on insubordination"

An overworked staff tells the manager that more resources are needed or tasks, priorities and deadlines need to be re-evaluated. They are told that if they can't get it done there are lots of people out there looking for jobs.

A manager asks for differing views and new ideas but when they are offered and he doesn't like them, the person is suddenly excluded from meetings and removed from the distribution list of e-mails.

In a group decision making process a strong willed individual quickly realizes she holds a minority viewpoint. She is known for her tenacity in getting what she wants, often at the expense of others and the best course of action. Rather than listen to seek understanding from others and consider the possibility that their thinking is better than hers, she goes into a "yes, but"; "you don't understand"; "based on my experience" modes and won't let go. Basically she wears the group down and they acquiesce rather than take her on.

A senior manager predictably uses verbal abuse, foul language and even fist pounding when his team summons up the courage to disagree with him. The team is highly stressed, emotionally spent. Their dilemma is they love working with each other, the work they do and respect the ability and dedication of the workforce. They know they could leave but feel that doing so would be to adandon their friends and remove the one buffer many people have between them and the CEO.

Bullies are stressful, challenging and often intimidating. To confront them in a constructive way requires courage, an assessment of the risk/reward balance and the ability to build support systems of people who have been bullied by the same person. Interestingly one of the things we know about bullies is that they have learned through their own life that bullying gets them want they want AND have rarely if ever had anyone stand up to them BUT when stood up to over a sustained period of time they feel lost and un-equipped to deal with people.

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