Why Leaders Put Up With Bullies on Their Team

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People often wonder, “why is our leader putting up with that bully? Everyone knows the guy is a bully. Why does she tolerate that here?” 

Bullying is the use of intimidation, humiliation, fear, and threats interpersonally. It is not to be confused with directness, assertiveness, or working openly through conflict.
People who employ these behaviors do not reflect well on their boss. A leader’s choice to tolerate bullying does real damage to the culture, team morale, and productivity. So why do they allow it to persist on their clock?

There are many reasons:

• Surprisingly, sometimes the leader is unaware of the situation. Most senior leaders are shrouded in a buffer zone of dishonesty. People are afraid to speak the truth to CEOs, who then come to live in an artificial world, a very different world than everyone else’s. And bullies are magnificent upward-managers. Usually they bully their peers and their reports but they do not bully their boss.

• If the leader does know about the bully on his team, he may believe that he cannot live without her. A leader can become disproportionately dependent on a key report who delivers results, which bullies often do. A leader may also have a strong sense of loyalty to the bully if she has done great work for him in the past.

• A leader may not know what to do about the bullying behavior. Perhaps she is afraid of the bully, herself, or is not masterful at difficult conversations. So she avoids confronting the bully with his unacceptable behavior and holding him accountable to change.

• If a leader is willing to address the bully but feels it is too difficult to replace the bully, he may just accept the bullying behavior as an unpleasant cost of doing business. The leadership talent shortage is real, and hiring senior outsiders into the organization is difficult and risky. Replacing the person can seem more daunting to the CEO than just accepting the bullying behavior, and he does not want to disrupt the business.

• Finally, a leader may be working with the bully to change her behavior, but it takes time and a lot of effort to change this management dysfunction.

So what can be done to resolve this situation?

• If you are a peer or direct report to the bully, be honest with your senior leader about the

bullying. It takes courage to tell a leader that one of her reports is bullying others. But the leader needs to know, even if the leader is personally close to the bully.

• If you are the leader, create a culture of open feedback and transparency. Knowing that most people are “managing” you, giving you feedback that you want to hear and avoiding conversations that you may wish not to hear, it takes extra work to really get people to share uncomfortable information.

• If you are the boss of a bully, you are invited to value how your team members treat others as much as you do the results they achieve. You may decide to reject destructive behavior from high performers. It is absolutely not a necessary trade-off to make (bad behavior for good performance). There are great performers in the world who are also great culture-creators, great bosses, and wonderful people with whom to work. Raise your standards and surround yourself with such people.

• If you are the one with the bullying behavior, have compassion for yourself. It could be the outward manifestation of extreme stress, it could be learned behavior from prior bosses who bullied you, or it could be scar tissue from past experiences in life. Find someone you trust, identify root causes, and heal and transcend this behavior.

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