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Bosses who bully

May 20 2012 12:05

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Understanding, Controlling and Stopping Bullies & Bullying at Work, by Margaret Kohut

By *Ian Mann

IF YOU are like me, you probably never gave bullying at work terribly much thought.

What sparked my interest was a request from a client to do some research and to lead a workshop for senior managers on the subject.

Among the books I read in preparation was this one by Margaret Kohut that I review here because it is both solid and accessible, and provides important insights into this unethical and pervasive practice.  

Bullying of employees cuts across all socioeconomic, racial, gender and ethnic boundaries, and is hardly a new phenomenon.

However, most bullying is never documented or reported because, until early in the new millennium, it was not recognised as a widespread problem. It bears strong similarities to schoolyard bullying and domestic violence, but for reasons I will describe probably remains more hidden.

Victims of workplace bullying are more often ignored than victims of schoolyard bullying or domestic violence, because their complaints can so easily be dismissed as the "bleating of a disgruntled employee".

Labelling prevents the targets from being taken seriously, enabling the bullying to continue. When a complaint goes unheard, the target's situation simply degenerates.

Few have the luxury of walking away in a stressed economy, and of those who do leave only a few have their dignity intact.

Workplace bullying can be described as the repeated mistreatment of an employee targeted by one or more employees with a malicious mix of humiliation, intimidation, sabotage of their performance and psychological violence.

Bullying can take the form of overt verbal taunts or abuse, or the more subtle form of making the target invisible and undermining their competence.  

It often involves diminishing the employee's workload to menial and unrewarding tasks, or placing the target under constant and unwarranted over-supervision.

It often involves drastically distorting or even fabricating so-called facts about the incompetence of the employee's work performance. The bully boss can disparage the target to superiors, secure in the knowledge that the target rarely has the opportunity to defend himself.

The goal of a workplace bully is the professional demise of the target; nothing less.

A sign of weakness, not strength

Coming from a clinical background, Kohut addresses the problem from a behavioural disorder perspective. She uses the descriptions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a classification of all clearly defined mental health disorders, to identify nine disorders that are commonly found to capture the majority of workplace bullies.

These are not mental illnesses; rather they are pervasive and enduring patterns of internal experiences and outward behaviours that deviate significantly from behaviour that is expected by society.

To this list Kohut adds a tenth classification, the JPM (Just Plain Mean), individuals who undermine and terrorise their targets to cope with their own fears.

Bullying always comes from weakness, not from strength.

According to the research, 81% of bullies are in management and are equally male and female. This makes the problem very difficult to detect as many people in the upper echelons of organisations are there because they are accomplished office politicians.

Bullying is exceptionally demeaning and destructive to a person's well-being. It damages the self-esteem and confidence of the target, causing accomplished people to doubt their own competence and skills.

Bullying is a draining force that consumes the total person on a holistic level.

The most common reasons for being bullied are that the target refuses to be subservient or over-controlled; the bully envies the target's superior competence; or the bully envies the target's social skills, their popularity or positive attitude.

Eighty percent of bullying targets are women, and 21% are university graduates or professional who tend to be independent, bright and skilled individuals.

Most targets report enjoying their jobs were it not for the constant emotional pain and stress that results from repeated bullying. Eighty-two percent ultimately lose their jobs.

Shame plays a large part in explaining why targets are often in denial or reluctant to come forward and protest the abuse. Like the shame and guilt of a rape or incest survivor, a target's denial only serves to intensify her negative self-concept.

By feigning acceptance or minimising the bully's behaviour, the targets save themselves from embarrassment in the workplace.

All bullying has its roots in the bully's intense, insatiable need to control others. A workplace bully is extremely likely to be a bully at home.

How much of a problem is this? No South African statistics are available, but a study conducted in the United States in 1999 concluded that it affects more than 23 million Americans. The international estimate is one in six employees is a target.

Upper-level managers who dismiss bullying as annoying but harmless do not realise that in doing so they impose a financial penalty on the organisation. Just the stress alone is estimated to cost American businesses $200-$300bn each year, more that the net profits of the Fortune 500 companies put together.

Bullying continues because we allow it. Close on 90% of those surveyed have witnessed bullying of some sort. The sad fact is that zero tolerance for bullying within a company is easy to establish and maintain.

It requires that CEOs and upper level managers firstly recognise it for the financial liability it constitutes, and then make clear that they consider this a dismissible ethical offence that shames their company.

Readability:       Light---+- Serious
Insights:           High -+--- Low
Practical:          High ---+- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy.
book review  |  ian mann
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