Managing Managers that Bully

The stare ‘em down approach to getting Abrasive Leaders back in line – does it work?

“I’ve got this covered.”

 This is what Joe thinks. Joe is the VP of Customer Service for Anywhere USA Manufacturing (AUM). A week ago, an account rep came to him, complaining about his boss Christopher – Joe’s direct report. Christopher is the Regional Customer Service Director for AUM, and Joe knows that Christopher can be hard on his people from time to time. “It’s just his way, and his people are probably being too sensitive,” Joe thinks to himself. But with this complaint, he decides to call Christopher in for a talk.

 Joe thinks that all he has to do is stand firm with Christopher, and Christopher will back down. He’s seen Christopher when he’s upset with his staff, and he knows he can be a handful. “Look him straight in the eyes, don’t take any crap,” he reminds himself. When Christopher comes in, Joe lays it out to him, telling him to shape up, saying that he won’t tolerate Christopher treating his people with disrespect. Christopher attempts to explain that he’s been frustrated by the incompetence of his team; Joe says he understands the frustration, but tells Christopher he needs to do a better job managing his people. Christopher thanks Joe for the feedback and leaves. Joe is feeling pretty good about himself. “All you have to do with someone like that is dish it right back,” he thinks. “Problem solved.”

 Not so fast, Joe.

 Sometimes, this “dish it right back” approach does indeed work with a manager who is being abrasive with his or her subordinates. It tends to work when the abrasiveness is on the mild side, more the result of occasional moodiness than a pattern of behavior.  But what about a more pervasive pattern of abrasiveness or “bullying”?

 Why “dishing it right back” won’t work with Abrasive Leaders (AKA “bullying bosses”).

Reason #1: The Blindspot. Managers like Joe aren’t usually the target of their report’s abrasive behavior, so they often aren’t aware of the breadth and depth of damage that’s occurring. They see the leader as having a few “rough edges” or being “passionate about his/her work.” In other words, they typically have a big blindspot when it comes to seeing the very real distress caused by the Abrasive Leader. A verbal reprimand is rarely sufficient to result in behavioral change.

Reason #2: The Abrasive Leader Doesn’t Know Any Other Way to Manage. Abrasive Leaders are often unaware of the damage their behaviors cause; they typically lack “social sonar,” and truly believe in the stick over the carrot as the way to motivate others. A directive to change their ways is rarely sufficient to improve the way they manage others, because they simply don’t know any other way to get the results they want.

Reason #3: Subordinates are Fearful (and for good reason). Like Joe, managers of Abrasive Leaders may think that it’s a minor issue, one that would go away if only the “target” would stand up to the Abrasive Leader like they do. The inherent power relationship predicts a different outcome however; employees know instinctively that to push back on a bullying boss is to risk one’s gainful employment. They’ll often only take that stand if they’ve reached the point where they are willing to lose their job in order to stop the abusive treatment. It’s simply unethical to expect employees to be responsible for getting the Abrasive Leader to change. The company owes them a working environment that is physically and psychologically safe.

 “Do we have to deal with this?”

 Managers who manage a bullying boss might wonder, “Why not just leave well enough alone?” The answer to this question is that tremendous suffering is caused by the abrasive behaviors of a bullying boss. In addition to the emotional toll are the costs associated with attrition, decreased morale and motivation, the increase in stress-related illness and retaliatory responses. These costs are difficult to assess and the numbers vary from study to study, but they are significant.  Turnover costs alone typically run at least 1.5 times the salary of the target that leaves the company; it’s estimated that 25% of those bullied will leave for a better working environment elsewhere, so the costs add up quickly. The more valuable the employee, the easier it is for them to leave and go elsewhere, ultimately leaving the company with a base of employees with no place else to go, low in morale and productivity.

 How to help Abrasive Leaders change.

 Many people are of the opinion that the only thing to do with an Abrasive Leader is to terminate. But Abrasive Leaders are usually very technically competent (if not interpersonally competent), and companies don’t want to lose them.

 What’s a company to do? First, it requires breaking through management’s denial that there’s a real problem occurring. Managers need to be able to see that a problem exists and care enough to want to make a change. They also need help—access to resources such as a mentor or external coach who can support the Abrasive Leader in changing his or her behaviors.

 Second, it requires breaking through the Abrasive Leader’s denial that his or her behaviors are a problem. The Abrasive Leader’s manager (or someone from HR) needs to help him or her see the impact of the negative behaviors and make them care enough to want to change. Usually this requires a clear statement of the consequences of not making a behavioral change (e.g., termination or demotion). The Abrasive Leader should also be provided with specialized mentoring or coaching to help the leader understand why the behaviors are occurring and what can be done instead.

 There is hope and yes, people do change – if they receive the right help.


Executive Confidante                                                                                        651-356-5080 / kalli@execconf.com