Bullies at work

May 30, 2003
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It seems to me that "bullying" has been going on for many years and is not new to safety professionals. I'm specifically referring to the behavior of operational managers. Bullying seems to be less of a problem in the staff ranks and at the top levels of leadership in an organization. Of course, in smaller organizations, the bully could be the president or owner. Let me provide some thoughts on two types of bullying:

Underfunding: At several companies, I've had operational managers berate me because, as an ES&H professional, I was not making the organization any money. Their argument was made to show that safety can be a drain on the organization. So they feel that expenditures for safety need to be thoroughly scrutinized - often with the result that the authorization to spend money is never made. This is an underhanded tactic, an excuse, using the perceived contribution to the bottom line as a means of assessing the merits of safety proposals or requests.

Undermining: I'm convinced that this practice occurs often. At one international organization I worked for, a senior vice president of a strategic business unit and I had a discussion involving his support for safety and commitment to funding an organizational change. We agreed to the change and his commitment in principle. The next day he and I met with my boss to inform and finalize the changes. To my surprise, and inward anger, the senior vice president did not acknowledge the previous day's discussion and his commitment. Instead, he provided reasons why he could not support the changes. The plan was DOA. My boss didn't know why we were having the meeting and thought it a poor use of his time. Naturally, this reflected poorly on my judgment and managerial proficiency.

Biting the hand that feeds

What can you do about bullying or underhanded tactics? I'd say that honing your upward management skills is crucial. But remember two important rules: 1) he who has the gold, rules; and 2) managing upward has its risks.

The person who controls the purse strings, the person in a higher level, generally has the upper hand. If you challenge him/her, you risk your position. Likewise, leaders are loyal to one another in the higher ranks. They are slow to judge each other and even slower to criticize one another.

Some leaders will accept feedback from their direct reports or other midlevel managers. With some, you place your career in their hands. They resent information or implications that they feel cast negatively on their performance - actually, they personalize the information. In my experience, paying careful attention to your approach, your timing and arming yourself with facts is at least a starting point to developing a strategy for confronting the issue with these hypersensitive managers.


Suggestions for combating bullying and underhanded tactics:

1) Work like the dickens to make yourself a credible and competent part of management.

2) Build relationships across the organization (open, honest, trusting, empathetic) and to the extent possible, do this with the problem people, too.

3) Work to create an understanding and an awareness that safety (risk identification, control and leadership) is good business and enhances profitability.

4) Involve people at all levels in the safety system - from goal-setting, to training, to assessment, to project identification/management, to providing feedback, to measurement and in every other way possible.

5) Get senior-level managers to be champions, where one will act as the champion for audits and assessments, another for a behavior-observation process, another for sponsoring work toward the completion of a specific goal.

6) Seek to involve a particularly nasty perpetrator of bullying and underhanded tactics in some phases of the safety system.

7) Under no circumstances create a confrontational environment with a bully. Instead, be emotionally intelligent (polite and respectful, forthright and honest, empathetic and patient).

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