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The Bully Backlash

April 29, 2005
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Bad behavior, especially in the workplace, seems to be making news again.

    On a recent morning, I read these stories within a few pages of each other in The Wall Street Journal:

    On one page, there was a story about how the nomination of John Bolton to be the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was stalled in a Senate committee, largely because of allegations by some people who had worked for him about his bullying and abusive behavior.

    A few pages later, there was a column discussing how mystifying it is that unqualified and abusive managers can continue to keep their jobs despite a clear track record of bad behavior and frequent abuse directed at people who work for them.

    Bad business behavior isn’t any big surprise, of course, because it has been going on for years. What is surprising, however, is that so much is being written about it--and how little it seems to matter. Being nasty, brutish and short with subordinates has long been a basic staple of corporate behavior, made famous by executives from Leona Helmsley to Michael Eisner.

    I’ve had my own experiences with this phenomenon.

    One guy I worked with had no discernible skills at all except for his ability to bully and badger people. The only things he ever really produced were the threatening memos to underlings, and he spent most of his workday berating people behind closed doors as he read, line by line, from what he had written. He liked to start conversations with the vague but subtly threatening question "Are you happy with your job?" The office wags had a nickname for him: Torquemada.

    At another company, one of the top executives insisted on scheduling one-on-one meetings with subordinates at odd times, say, 7:30 on a Friday evening when the employee was planning to attend her son’s annual football banquet. This was a torturous test of loyalty, and the executive used to brag that it worked because it showed who was truly "committed" to the company. "Committed" employees gritted their teeth, passed on the football banquet, and went to the meeting. The "uncommitted," who dared to put their family first, eventually got canned.

    Now, I’m not comparing John Bolton with these bad bosses. Bolton’s actions toward others, the Journal editorialized, were, at their worst, simply "rude."

    Being rude isn’t a crime, of course, but this line of defense makes me wonder: Shouldn’t we expect more of those who aspire to higher positions of power and authority? Isn’t it a given that those who manage others are expected to be kinder, more understanding, more civil and, yes, less rude?

    Peter Drucker made this point in his classic 1954 book The Practice of Management: "A manager develops people. Through the way he manages he makes it easy or difficult for them to develop themselves. He directs people or he misdirects them. He brings out what is in them or he stifles them. He strengthens their integrity or he corrupts them. He trains them to stand upright and strong or he deforms them.

    "Every manager does these things when he manages--whether he knows it or not. He may do them well, or he may do them wretchedly. But he always does them."

    All managers, from the CEO down to the lowest line-level supervisor, have a choice in how they treat those who work for them. As Drucker observed, the manager can either help make the workforce better or worse, either more focused and engaged in the job at hand, or preoccupied with what the boss is going to do to them next.

    Sometimes those decisions are good, sometimes they are bad, but rarely are they forgotten.

    Just ask John Bolton.

Workforce Management, May 2005, p. 8 -- Subscribe Now!

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