There are workplaces around the United States and other countries where it’s an insult to be described as “a nice person.” In those places the description carries the implicit judgement that the worker isn’t tough, isn’t able to make hard decisions and wilts under pressure. Employees identified as anything but nice are flagged as management material, people who get things done, who mean business. A closer look suggests that workplaces ruled by individuals promoted for their “tough dynamic management” style are often abusers who undermine performance at all levels.
For ergonomists and other experts committed to optimizing performance in the workplace and elsewhere, abusive management – bullying by another name – is a rich source for study.
Abusers in the workplace
Workplace bullying, an enduring subject for researchers and advice columns, grabbed national headlines in the United States in April when some members of the US Congress balked at approving a long-serving federal bureaucrat for the position of US ambassador to the United Nations. Bureaucrat John Bolton’s employer, the US Administration, admires him for, in so many words, his tough dynamic management style. Critics describe it as bullying. They allege that Bolton bullied subordinates in pursuit of facts and figures to fit his views. During hearings in the US Senate, Bolton was accused of screaming and throwing things, constant fault-finding, changing work schedules and withholding needed resources. His specialty was snide comments, according to one former assistant, with a knack for pinpointing his target’s insecurities.
If the allegations reflect the full truth, a day with John Bolton would be just like another day on the job for many workers around the world. A search for “abusive management” on the Internet brings up 1.3 million responses.
Dr. Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute in Washington state and co-author of “The Bully At Work,” found that one in six American workers experiences mistreatment from bosses that disrupts work.
Random House College Dictionary defines “bully” as a “blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.” YourDictionary.com rounds out a similar definition with, “A thug.”
Researchers Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon from the University of Surrey in England go one better than “thug, ” describing some managers as psychopathic. The study, published in Psychology, Crime and Law in 2005 found that a sample of senior executives scored higher on measures of histrionic, narcissistic and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders than a group of disturbed criminals. Superficial charm, lack of empathy and perfectionism are accompanying traits.
Their results were obtained by asking 39 business managers to complete the Minnesota Multiphasic Inventory for DSM III Personality Disorders. The scores were compared to the scores of 1,085 current and former patients at Broadmoor, a high-security hospital in Britain that houses some of the country’s most notorious and dangerous psychopaths.
The managers have an advantage not shared by the Broadmoor population. The researchers categorize them as “successful psychopaths – people with personality disorder patterns, but without the characteristic history of arrest and incarceration.”
Professor Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia, a world expert on bullying managers, describes this class apart as “snakes in suits who scale corporate ladders with consummate ease.” His Belfast public lecture on psychopaths at work, reported by BBC-TV in January 2004, was the run-up to a two-day conference organized by the British Psychological Society.
Bullying, a contributor to Work-Related Stress
It is well documented that bullying contributes generously to a named syndrome, Work-Related Stress. The European Agency for Health and Safety at Work regards both bullying and WRS as significant health and organizational problems in the European work force, and publishes scores of fact sheets about how to recognize and deal with them. Several federal and state authorities in the United States make similar fact sheets available.
Bullying victims are vulnerable to all the byproducts of stress – insomnia, stroke, hypertension, heart attack, diabetes, cancer, obesity, auto-immune diseases and premature aging.
The Ergonomics Report™ of August 12, 2004, added absenteeism to the byproducts of bullying. “The Psychosocial/MSD Link” also reports that worker health concerns include an increased risk of injuries and musculoskeletal disorders.
Stress on the individual amounts to stress on the company
When it comes to stress, companies fare no better, according to Dr. Hal Hendrick, Emeritus Professor of Human Factors and Ergonomics, University of Southern California and Principal, Hendrick & Associates. “One of the major effects I have noted in my 40 years of research and consulting in organizations is that bullying by managers and supervisors can be a major source of employee stress,” he explained in an interview for The Ergonomics Report™. “As a result, employees are more prone to making mistakes and exhibiting other classic symptoms, such as a narrowing of attention and focusing on too few cues, oversimplifying complex tasks, and making poor decisions – all of which can be extremely costly to the organization.”
Continued bullying results in continued stress that results in illness and related lost workdays – “a fact well documented in the literature as another major expense for organizations,” he added
Citing an example, he said he was once asked to evaluate the assistant manager of a major hotel who made frequent mistakes and poor decisions. The general manager bullied the assistant, and the stressed employee was seen as incapable of his job. Professor Hendrick recommended moving the assistant to a different hotel to work under a general manager known for a management style built on positive reinforcement. The assistant blossomed and now manages a very successful large hotel in the same chain.
“Still another impact of bullying managers is that it causes resentment which often gets acted out in passive aggressive behavior towards the organization,” Professor Hendrick said. “The employees do just enough to get by, but no more; communications get slightly altered or delayed; correspondence gets misfiled, and employees don’t cover their manager’s back. I have seen a number of cases of this in my organizational assessment work. The result, of course, is inefficient and costly organizational functioning.”
So why is bullying tolerated?
If abusive management impairs the performance of organizations and workers alike, why does it endure? The US administration supports Bolton’s nomination explicitly because of his “toughness.” With the highest office in the land believing behavior described as intimidating equals results, employers are likely to continue seeing merit in Bolton-like employees.
The daily headlines offer another possible explanation: a dysfunctional workplace isn’t necessarily unprofitable in an era of corporate takeovers and downsizing. Abusive management can be useful. Behind the business news are stories of unscrupulous employers who bully employees into quitting to save on expensive severance and redundancy packages.
When short-term profit is the only issue, “business process re-engineering,” “performance-related pay,” “360-degree appraisal” and other modern management techniques are vulnerable to abuse.
Bullying incidents are not yet illegal in America, according to Dr. Namie, though European, Australian, and Quebec laws afford some protection from it.
Washington is considering landmark legislation that could bring relief to the workers of the state. If it passes, House Bill 1968 will outlaw workplace bullying, according to an article published in The Olympian in February 2005. The act describes workplace bullying as “conduct that: (a) a reasonable person would find hostile or offensive and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests; and (b) causes physical or psychological harm to the employee … The gratuitous sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance.”
Reading the description, it is difficult to see why bullying is tolerated, either by victims of companies. The answer is that most victims have little choice because some 81 percent of workplace bullies are bosses, according to the Washington article. Unless there is adequate income from another source, an employee risks his or her job by standing up to the abusive boss or complaining to higher management. The article points out that an abusive manager can easily manipulate the situation to suggest that the victim’s work performance is the problem. And other employees are sometimes reluctant to support a co-worker’s claim of bullying for fear of their own jobs.
In the companies where the “tough” managers are prized, a bullied employee may not even receive a hearing.
An entrenched problem
The traits associated with bullying are often paired with manipulative charm, according to the Sussex University report, so even employers who value humane management and reject the tough dynamic types as liabilities can find themselves with bullies in key places.
“Corporate psychopaths” use arrogance and superficial charm to scale the top of the ladder, knocking off whoever gets in their way,” Professor Hare explained during his Belfast lecture, and such people are social predators not bothered by ordinary social anxieties. “They are self-serving individuals … who see the world as one large watering hole.”
Once they have their talons dug into a company, he said, they may be too well connected politically to shift, hiding their dangerous natures behind a network of influence and manipulation.
He and a co-researcher Dr Paul Babiak, also an expert in psychopathic disorders, have devised a 107-point questionnaire designed to weed out abusive managers. As reported by the BBC, the “B-Scan,” which stands for Business Scan, follows from the “P-Scan,” which is now considered to be the standard test for detecting criminals with psychopathic leanings.
Dr. Namie, in an interview for The Ergonomics Report™, sees bullying as a systemic problem that must be rectified at the cultural level. He wants to see policies that remove the rewards from bullying and impunity from bullying. “Policies should be enforceable,” he said, “and without political interference.”
The odds can be stacked against employees victimized by bullying: it follows that employers who equate intimidation with “the right stuff” are likely to be top heavy with abusive managers, individuals unlikely to regard bullying as an issue.
Employers who do take bullying complaints seriously need to take one more step, according to the Washington article. As it stands, upper management gives more weight to the manager’s account of an incident. It’s time for employees to receive the benefit of the doubt.
Sources: Newhouse News Service, BBC, Olympia
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-05-11.