WHEN THE BOOT IS ON THE OTHER FOOT
The British Royal family ,often referred to as ‘The Firm’, is bracing itself for the storm anticipated from the interview by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex by Oprah Winfey, due to be aired this weekend. But in the age-old tactic of a pre-emptive strike, palace aides have just announced an investigation into claims of staff bullying by the Duchess during her time at Kensington Palace, many of whom resigned, complaining of her unreasonable requests and authoritative manner. Some of those staff members are said to be suffering from a form of PTSD and have reportedly formed their own support group nicknamed the Sussex Survivors. To the country’s media, the pair continues to be the gift that keeps on giving!
Over the years I have written several times about the subject of bullying. I am drawn to it for various reasons not least of which is because I have been on the receiving end of it a few times and I know the devastating impact which it can have. I have tended to concentrate on similar stories to that of Meghan Markle - management harassment of staff, belittlement, being ignoring or humiliated or a host of other malevolent tactics that you can find in any bully’s tool kit. But that is not the full story of what goes on in the world of work.
It’s normal for us to think of workplace bullying in terms of the vulnerable employee whose manager is in a position of power and authority and becomes the perpetrator. But, the mostly concealed and never mentioned subject of the manager being bullied or what is called upward bullying is rarely acknowledged or discussed - try a Google search and you can find almost nothing. I’m not talking about collective action from worker representatives, group grievances etc. What I am referring to is that nightmare employee who purposely withholds information from their manager, side comments during a meeting, withdraws expertise, challenges them in such a way that leaves them red faced and embarrassed...- a whole host of things. Often the behaviour is passive aggressive, such as not showing up for a scheduled training programme because you didn’t officially send an email to that effect – citing “remember we said we would do that at the last meeting when we wanted to communicate things in the future” ...smiley face? Often, however, the behaviour is more blatantly malevolent, especially when they have gained power from other factors like being more technically competent than their boss, more quick-witted or having tenure that equates to being at the organisation forever.
I am writing about this today because of a recent discussion I had with a manager who told me that he feared a staff member. That’s quite a hard thing to admit for a man (before you think I am sexist let me qualify that in my experience men find it more difficult to display vulnerability and fear than women). On the other hand, it’s probably quite a hard thing for anyone to admit to vulnerability, regardless of what Brene Brown says!
Obviously there can be many factors involved. In one extensive bullying study carried out in The Australian public sector it was found that managers were more vulnerable to bullying at times of insecurity in the organization, a manager new to his or her managerial position, and in organizations where the manager was highly dependent on his or her staff.
Upward bullying is quite different from the bullying that comes from ‘I am in charge’ and therefore can wield a power over you. Upward bullying tends to be subtle especially in the early stages, perhaps because of the obvious risks involved in blatant displays of negative behaviour towards a person in authority. According to research it starts as small things and then as the power of the perpetrator gets stronger (or the manager is worn down), power-tactics change and become more overt and direct. Before you know it...and you really do... there is a loss of legitimate power by the manager and a continuing cycle of escalating tactics.
The bulling is not always just one person. It’s not unusual for the manager to be bullied by the group when they arrive to meetings with a planned attack to undermine them. There might be only one bully who has orchestrated the attack but just as he/she is bullying the manager they have coerced the others into the same behaviour.
So here is the crux. If you are at the receiving end of bulling the chances are you will hide it. When I was bullied at school it never crossed my mind to tell my parents or teachers about what was happening and I certainly wouldn’t have admitted it to my friends. Bullying results in shame, embarrassment, fear and guilt which increase whilst the bullying continues. Bullies recognise these symptoms and use them to dis-empower their victim. I didn’t realise then that this was about what they were missing – not something that was wrong with me. Their deficiency and cruelty caused by , hard luck, poor upbringing, selfishness, just being a shit or whatever else made them abhorrent and cruel. I thought it was about me - that somehow, I had done something wrong. I was weak, they were strong and without critical thinking, clarity of thought and logical reasoning I was consumed with shame and guilt. I think this feeling is the same and in fact exacerbated when you are in a position of legitimate power. It doesn’t matter if you are a parent being bullied by your child or a CEO being bullied by your line manager it is traumatic, unexpected and feels somehow abnormal. So, the parent thinks what I am doing is wrong and the manager thinks I must be inadequate as a leader to have lost control and allowed this to happen. And, so instead of calling it you keep quiet.
So, to managers out there who are feeling bullied let me just tell you, you are not alone. According to the Pathways of Job-Related Negative Behaviour, studies have identified a prevalence rate of between 10% and 20% of managers reporting that they have been bullied, primarily by their employees. That’s one in 5...maybe we should take a leaf out of the Kensington dismisses, form our own support group and seek professional help? So long as the bullies don’t get in with an Oprah interview first!