With the UK Government’s announcement that the Home Secretary will be investigated over accusations of bullying, it is bringing an oft-hidden leadership problem out into the open. Millions of people work for bully-bosses. There are three important triggers that can turn an inspirational leader into a bully-boss. And each of them can be reversed, if a company knows how.
To start us off, we need to get clear on two facts:
Happy people don’t bully.
Most bullies don’t set out to be nasty.
But that doesn’t make being a bully-boss ok.
Most people have a story about having worked for a bully-boss. The unreasonable demands, the ridiculously tight deadlines, the constant criticism, the micro-managing, the fear of speaking up with your ideas in case you’re publicly blasted, yet again. That familiar stomach-churn as you get a message asking you to pop into their office. The sense of dread when you hear that they’re going to be in that high-profile client pitch where you’re presenting.
Working for a bully-boss can trash performance, as a person ‘plays it safe’, to avoid criticism. It can destroy someone’s confidence, as the constant low-level criticism makes them doubt themselves. It can lead to stress, anxiety and serious mental health issues. It can lead to absenteeism and even to a star performer leaving a company.
Bully-bosses damage people, productivity, performance and profits.
Yet it’s something we rarely talk about.
Most companies have a leader somewhere in the ranks who is a bully-boss. Many have plenty of them.
But few companies have processes in place to fix the problem, other than performance management.
Here’s the thing:
It’s really rare for a bully-boss to set out to be nasty. And performance management rarely turns the situation around.
Performance management only works if the cause of the bullying behaviour is something a person is consciously aware of and something they have the skills to do something about. The three core triggers are below-the-surface issues, which makes getting a ‘good talking to’ from HR unlikely to fix the problem.
There are three key triggers that can cause someone who is an excellent leader to turn into a bully. And each of them can be solved. In reverse order:
3. Workplace Stress
It’s a neurological fact that our brains are hard-wired to detect danger, before they detect reward. It’s how our species has survived for so long. And the same neural pathways that detect danger also detect fear. This fires off biochemical reactions in the body to trigger the ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response, firing off adrenalin and cortisol, while we decide whether or not to run from that sabre-toothed tiger.
When someone is working in an environment that is heavy on the long-term stress, the part of their nervous system that is supposed to regulate our stress hormones (the HPA axis) can no longer do its job, because it gets overloaded. So our system gets stuck in stress. We can end up with hypervigilance, where we are constantly on the look-out for threats.
And we’re on high-alert to protect ourselves.
Someone running that pattern tends to have a very short fuse, due to their stress hormones being out of balance and the hypervigilance meaning they’re looking for threats and danger, everywhere. They will tend to:
- be emotionally volatile
- micro-manage team members’ projects (to prevent mistakes, which are perceived as a threat)
- throw blame, rather than accepting responsibility
- criticise others, because that echoes the self-talk soundtrack in their head
- be fire-fighting, rather than having a calm workplan, with ever-changing priorities that their teams can’t keep up with, as they react to the greatest perceived threat, often on an hour-by-hour basis
… all ingredients for the perfect bully-boss.
In addition, stress affects performance through the way it diverts blood flow in the brain to the primal part, away from the pre-frontal cortex that does our brilliant thinking. So a stressed leader is more likely to make mistakes and to find it hard to concentrate, which accentuates the bully-boss behaviours, above.
There is plenty you can do to cut personal stress (our self-talk is one of the biggest triggers). And any good employer should be making external toxic stress in the workplace a thing of the past.
2. The Alpha-Male Leadership Culture
The 2019 Imposter Syndrome Research Study showed there is an alpha-male leadership culture in many organisations at the highest levels of leadership. Below those levels, more collaborative leadership is valued. But at those most senior levels, it turns into a competitive, political, watch-your-back environment.
For someone who isn’t used to this, or for whom it is not a natural fit, it can trigger aggressive, fear-based behaviours to compensate, which can be experienced by those who work for them as bullying.
1. Imposter Syndrome
I’ve been mentoring high-achievers for nearly twenty years and one of the most consistent challenges they face – even if they are outwardly successful – is Imposter Syndrome: “Who am I to be doing this?” “What if they find out I’m not good enough?”
Promotion to a level beyond which they feel ‘safe’ can trigger them to feel exposed and unsupported, especially if their new role no longer has the mentoring support of a line manager, but now reports into the CEO. This can cause previously dormant Imposter Syndrome to fire off.
The research study showed that there are four major symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, all of which can tip a formerly excellent leader into being a bully-boss:
Source: Clare Josa – Ditching Imposter Syndrome
Only 16% of research respondents admitted to this, but 52% of them showed clear perfectionist behaviours. Perfectionism falls under the ‘fight’ aspect of the fight-flight-freeze response, as you ‘slay’ the project and ‘go to war’ to ‘crush’ your goals.
Perfectionism causes people to set unrealistically high standards in their work which, if they attain them, they write off as fluke or luck. It can also cause a manager to micro-manage their team, passing on those unrealistically high standards, because the manager feels they will be judged by their team’s mistakes.
This quickly creates a culture where people are scared to innovate and take risks, where they are terrified of making mistakes, and where they know they will be blamed, if things go wrong.
62% of respondents reported having a problem with procrastination in the past year, as a result of Imposter Syndrome. And procrastination comes under the ‘flight’ aspect of the fight-flight-freeze response – as you run from the project.
In the workplace, this manifests as ‘busyness’ – someone who is juggling all the balls, but never making progress. It is borne from the fear of being ‘found out’ as not good enough, which makes them fill their time with actions that are related to the project, but not those that will actually deliver results.
If a leader is running this symptom of Imposter Syndrome, then they will be very stressed, too busy to support team members, blaming others for lack of progress, and emotionally volatile, letting people down on promises.
54% of research respondents described Imposter-Syndrome-driven behaviours that fall under ‘project paralysis’. This is the classic ‘freeze’ response from the fight-flight-freeze stress cycle. It’s the ‘rabbit in headlights’, ignoring a project until the deadline means that’s no longer an option, then using the adrenalin rush this causes to push on through at the last minute.
A leader running this pattern won’t be able to support team members on the project they are secretly scared of, and will then set unrealistic deadlines for completion, massively shifting priorities at the eleventh hour, expecting others to pull the potential all-nighter that the project now needs.
65% of the research respondents exhibited behaviours that fall under people-pleasing, as a result of Imposter Syndrome. And this falls under the relatively new category in the fight-flight-freeze response of ‘fawning’ – wanting to please people, in order to be liked and accepted in the tribe.
In a corporate environment, this can lead to a person taking on projects they don’t need to do, in order to appear helpful. If a leader is running this pattern, it can quickly cause their team to become over-loaded. Then, as the team struggles to complete their workload, the leader becomes critical and volatile, because they need to deliver on those promises, or they will be rejected by the tribe.
It can also cause a leader to change priorities or even deliverables, without warning, if they see an opportunity to please someone by delivering ahead of schedule.
It’s obvious from these three factors why performance management – the traditional route – is unlikely to work. In fact, it can make things worse by increasing someone’s stress levels, making them even more afraid of being ‘found out’, and triggering the hypervigilance that increases their anxiety, making them even more emotionally volatile.
All criticism is borne of someone else’s pain.
Native American saying
A leader who has turned into a bully is struggling inside and projecting their pain outwards. That doesn’t make it ok, but it explains why we need to use proactive compassion, rather than criticism and the threat of being fired, if we want to turn this around.
We need to give that leader the support they need, to remove any toxic stress, and to help them to let go of the behaviours that are causing people to experience them as being a bully.
As with anything, prevention is better than cure, but it’s never too late to turn things around. And that’s why leadership development programmes need to give people the tools they need to clear out the triggers for potential bullying behaviour, before they are put in the situation where it might arise as a stress response.
We also need to urgently address the alpha-male culture at senior levels, and to ensure that no one has to work in a toxic stress environment. That’s simply not acceptable.
As for the Imposter Syndrome triggers, there’s plenty that can be done to spot and to support someone who is struggling with this, with in-house awareness training for HR teams and line managers, with group or 1:1 coaching, with specifically tailored leadership development programmes, and with talks to bring this hidden topic out into the open.
If you recognise any of the symptoms that can trigger a leader to become a bully-boss, within your organisation, and want to do something about it, here’s where to book a call with me, so we can chat about solutions.