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The High Cost of Executive Bullying

As former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner once said, "People should fear the competition, not their bosses." Too many leaders confuse openness with weakness. But there’s a difference between strong-minded and bull-headed.

As a result, employee engagement increased 3 percentage points in the last year alone and 4 percentage points in two years, according to a 2011 employee survey. “Commitment to the work and the company” increased by 8 percentage points. The company is now in a much better position to capitalize on opportunities as they arise.

All senior leaders want to succeed and want their companies to succeed. However, if executive bullies are successful, it is despite their bullying not because of it. Executive bullying creates an unhealthy work environment — rife with micro-management, information hoarding and self-interest. This behavior may seem like it’s working in the short term, but what may look like positive results are often short-lived. Sometimes, by the time the company sees the damage, the bully has moved on, leaving the blame to his successor.

When executive bullying flourishes, disrespectful treatment of others can become systemic. I have observed over the 30 years I’ve worked with companies that what goes on in the C-suite sends ripples throughout the organization. Behaviors that originate with the CEO and his direct reports filter down, where they are repeated and amplified. Just as business success can be traced back to a leader’s conduct, so too can business failure. It’s up to the leader to see the bullying cycle for what it is, and avoid it.

Bully Prevention

Below are six steps leaders can take to avoid becoming an executive bully once they move into the corner office.

  1. Set a high ethical bar: Effective leaders understand that behaving morally and not breaking the law are sometimes two different things. Whether or not the behavior of employees at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is ultimately found to be illegal, hacking the phones of celebrities, politicians, relatives of dead soldiers and even a murdered English schoolgirl is unethical, and the company has suffered mightily as a result.
  2. Create a charter: The top leaders at NetApp put together a code of conduct based on what NetApp’s Dan Warmenhoven calls “the five Cs”: candor, collaboration, commitment, communication and community. Similarly, the leadership team at Unite Group PLC, an FTSE 200 company, created a written charter that lays out the values, behaviors and expectations for individual members and the team as a whole. According to Unite CEO Mark Allan, “When you go through that exercise, it gives a shared reference point to hold colleagues to account. We believe that the way the leadership team behaves is the way the rest of the organization will behave.”
  3. Set and enforce a “no bullies rule”: How many senior teams have a member who shuts down everyone else’s ideas, is driven to win every argument, never gives credit to the troops and excels at touting his own accomplishments? If your company puts up with this, you are enabling executive bullies. Give team members permission to call out this behavior — even when you are exhibiting it yourself. Barclays CEO Bob Diamond instituted his own version of the “no bullies rule” at the British bank (he calls it a “no jerks rule”), and has fired 30 people who violated it. “If someone can’t behave with their colleagues and can’t be part of the culture, it doesn’t matter how good they are at what they do, they have to be asked to leave,” Diamond told The Guardian.
  4. Pass the ball: Business is a team sport. No single leader can be expert at everything. Most, in fact, have glaring blind spots. The best executives recognize that and call on others with different strengths to help. Just as executives have content skills, they also have process skills. For example, I once worked with a research and development company whose CEO was a visionary with a talent for seeing opportunities. The head of operations was the opposite — he was always able to identify risks. The business development person brought context and history to the discussion; the marketing person was attuned to how the workforce would react. Together they made an effective team.
  5. Welcome contrarian voices: How many breakthroughs might have been made or disasters averted if domineering executives had not told other team members that their idea was unachievable or their information was wrong? To encourage the free flow of ideas, John W. Rogers, Jr., CEO of Ariel Investments, found a way to ensure that the contrarian voice is heard. “We have formalized the role of the devil’s advocate to force a structured dissenting view in our investment meetings…. By designating another senior member of our team to argue against an idea with the same rigor with which it was researched by the industry specialist, we ensure a balanced argument is not only presented but also heard, ” Rogers told the Wall Street Journal.
  6. Take a look in the mirror: Try to see yourself as others see you, and then ask, “Is that the way I want to be perceived?” It can be helpful to make video recordings of yourself during meetings and watch them with an outside observer who has no stake in the game — perhaps an executive coach. Are you willing to accept harsh realities and confront the problems direct reports bring to your attention? Did you respect the ideas of others? Did you encourage thoughtful debate, or did you squelch it?

Most leaders want to do the right thing for their companies, their people and their communities. They don’t set out to be bullies — indeed, it’s doubtful that even the worst offenders think of themselves that way — but they may become bullies nevertheless. Executives could achieve better results by collaborating to address complex issues instead of unilaterally dictating the way forward. The bottom line: executive bullying is systematic disrespectful treatment of others. And it’s not good for business.

Warning Signs: How Can You Tell if You Are a Corporate Bully?

  • You tend to label people who disagree with you as “naysayers,” “risk-averse,” “incompetent,” etc.
  • You fall in love with an idea, position or deal.
  • No one ever finds fault with your point of view.
  • There is little disagreement or debate within your leadership team.
  • When your team does debate an issue, there are clear “winners” and “losers.”
  • You deliver results but people don’t enjoy working for you.
  • You always believe you are the “smartest guy in the room.”
  • Your direct reports rarely tell you bad news.
  • You are taken by surprise when things go wrong.
  • You believe you are better at almost everything than anyone else on your team.
  • You blame others when things go wrong.
  • You rarely admit mistakes or apologize.
  • You are an expert at “gotcha” — catching others in an error.


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