We’ve all read about Sir Alex Allan’s recent report concerning whether the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, broke the Ministerial Code. It centres on allegations of bullying, and ironically the story broke during Anti-Bullying Week.
I don’t want to get into the specifics of the Patel case here, but I do want to say a few things about bullying in general, not least because I’m slightly shocked that we’re still talking about it here in the early 21st Century. Those who bully must have had the memo a thousand times, and yet it still persists.
I haven’t yet come across the leadership manual that says that bullying is a good way of inspiring those working for you. Perhaps because it isn’t.
Bullying, self-evidently, is likely to alienate, upset and demotivate those on the receiving end. If you summon up your best mental image of the great leader, then the chances are you don’t see them in your mind’s eye shouting, swearing or belittling. Rather, you probably see them as dignified, courteous in disagreement, empathetic.
Is it possible to bully staff without the intention of causing upset? I don’t think so. It’s not possible to bully someone without knowing that it’s outside behavioural norms. If someone shouts and swears at you in a supermarket car park over a disputed parking space, it’s a nasty experience. Translate that into the workplace, and particularly if the shouter and swearer is at or near the top of the organisation, then upset is going to be caused.
I guess bullying could happen ‘unintentionally’, but then that raises questions of self-awareness. Every good or great leader needs to have self-awareness by the bucketful. If they don’t know how they’re coming across, they’ve lost half the leadership battle.
Even if a leader or manager feels they’re not getting the support from staff they need, bullying is only likely to make it worse. It’s very difficult for a subordinate to support a bully effectively. You don’t know what to say, you don’t know how to say it, and you fear the volcanic (or passive-aggressive) reaction to any attempt to question a senior’s perspective. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – underperformance reinforced and incentivised by bullying.
In principle, of course, we should stand up to a bully. Sometimes, they’re mortified to discover how they’ve been perceived, or suitably shocked by the act of resistance, and behaviour changes. All too often, though, it’s really difficult to take a stand. It requires a huge amount of courage. Going through your mind are questions like: what impact will this have on my job or career; will I become an outlier; will others stand up for me, or am I going to have to fight this on my own?
Bullying also says a lot about bullies themselves. The drivers no doubt run deep, and while I’m not going to pretend I have a well-researched diagnosis of which psychological factors make a bully, I would speculate that in some cases it could be rooted in a (maybe unacknowledged) lack of self-esteem, for which the behaviour is a cover; or at the other end of the spectrum, in an excess of self-regard that leads the bully to believe they have intrinsically more worth than those they are bullying.
People who bully usually work for someone. Quite often, that someone will be aware of the behaviour, either informally or through a formal procedure. The extent to which they tackle the bullying head-on is a measure of their own leadership qualities. Of course, in some cases the behaviour might have been learned from the senior person – it might be the template for the organisation. That’s the kind of leadership and workplace to which the word ‘toxic’ routinely applies. And it’s not really any better if bullying is informally licenced from the top – ‘turning a blind eye’. An inability to give a lead on bullying, or to rein in a bully, is itself a clear metric of fundamentally broken leadership.
Anti-Bullying Week is now behind us, and the risk is that we all say the right things for the other 51 weeks of the year, but don’t act on them to the degree required. We might proclaim zero tolerance for bullying, and then set a target for next year’s staff survey on the percentage of staff affected by bullying. Needless to say, any number greater than zero does not equal zero.
Not so much a red rag to a bully, then, as a red card. And now, before the 21st Century gets any older, we should let bullying once and for all find its proper place in the workplace – as part of a troubled past from which we have learned, but to which we’ll never return.