Red Rag to a Bully

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.

8 thoughts on “Red Rag to a Bully

  1. Thank you Roger for expressing so well what we all know from either experience or observation.
    I have never met any bully who was not a coward or victim. Difficult to differentiate!
    As a child I read a lot of Frank Richards (Billy Bunter etc.). Laughed at the ‘horseplay’ for a while but then began to feel uncomfortable with the obvious bullying and racism. And none of the bullies got their comeuppance.
    That was over 60 years ago. Why do the new bullies believe their actions are some form of ‘firm encouragement’ rather than out and out verbal and mental violence?
    At my age it’s easy to just sigh in despair.
    Keep up the good work!

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Martin. You’ve expressed the nature of the bully with great clarity: they tend to be a coward or a victim. Maybe part of this is to get the bully to find a way out of their behaviour by helping them recognise those traits. And don’t despair – I have to believe that, incrementally, humankind is learning and will eventually get these things right!

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  2. I’d make two comments here, both about perceptions. In organisations which have a confrontational approach to decision-making (yes, I do have the MOD in mind), some people do genuinely think that “firm management” means shouting a lot. Interestingly, people who are more consensus-seeking are sometimes accused of being “too nice”. The other point I’d make is that we do tend to expect different behaviours from different people, although we shouldn’t. I’ve observed that privileged white males don’t like being given instructions by women or people from ethnic minorities, and this sometimes leads to suggestions that the manager is a bully or “uppity”. I’m not commenting on the PP case, but I do think that sometimes people complain about behaviour from a woman which would be considered normal and acceptable if it came from a man. Just a thought.

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    1. Thanks, Richard. I’m sure you’re right about ‘firm management’. But I think passive-aggression is as common as shouting among bullies, and I’m not sure whether that counts as belief in a firm approach – rather, an avoidance of direct communication. I think you make a very good point about privileged people responding badly to people who constitute a challenge to that privilege. There’s a wider societal phenomenon there, of course, but I’m inclined to think you’re right that it might apply specifically in the context of bullying in the workplace.

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  3. Roger, I feel and think a lot of things in response to what you have written, but somehow on this theme I find it very hard to craft a suitably sanitised form of words by way of comment. It is difficult territory, not least because until not so long ago, schools of the type that have produced 2 of our 3 most recent prime ministers subliminally encouraged a degree of “bullying ” to reinforce a sense of hierarchy and as character development. Society has marched swiftly on from this, but I’m not convinced that all of us as individuals have. I wonder if whether certain interpersonal behaviour constitutes “bullying” or not is less about the actual behaviour, and more about the make-up and status of the person doing it…

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    1. I think there’s a lot in what you say, Walter, and maybe that’s one reason why the bully finds it hard to recognise their behaviour for what it is. If you only have the one template, then it can be hard to step outside it and change. That’s an explanation, though, not an excuse.

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