Workplace bullies crush innovation & cripple growth

By Charlene Smith

In her song Respect, Aretha Franklin sings: 

I’m about to give you all of my money

And all I’m askin’ in return, honey

Is to give me my profits

The primary stakeholders in your business are your clients and staff, and the return on investment they want is


Such a small investment with such high returns.


New Yorker, 2013

But in too many companies there is a culture of bullying, ego, not listening, arrogance, and rudeness.  The biggest know-it-all’s are often those who know the least, these managers and executives disguise the fact that they are in jobs that they are poorly prepared for by being bullies and hiring subordinates who lack the appropriate skills levels. And so they have poorly-performing departments of people who have been appointed above their capabilities. Everyone is frustrated, unhappy, poorly directed, confused, demotivated, and angry.

Over time the air in some departments is so toxic that if they were nuclear reactors they’d explode or be shut down.

These are common themes I have encountered in companies I have consulted to. It is worth quietly considering how many are present in your company or department and how you can help transform. Take only one issue at a time and address it – either as a staff member or manager:

Blame and resentment. Staff claim issues of power, control, and manipulation limit their capacity to work effectively.  

Integrity.  What does it mean and how should each staff member display it.  This needs to be an ongoing conversation with examples highlighted. 

Job security.  Staff that fear job security underperform, even where productivity ratings appear high, quality will probably be uneven. Ensure that those staff who have safe jobs know it. 

Good benefits attract the best staff. What more can I say, if you want the best staff then provide a happy, secure work environment with great benefits. If quality is not important to your business success then don’t concern yourself with benefits.

Confidence inspires. Part of confidence is communication. Keep staff in the loop by providing accurate, timely information. Act on the values your organization espouses.

Honesty is a virtue that is in short supply. Be honest to, and with, staff, customers, and the media.  The better your track record of honesty, the higher your returns on staff and customer loyalty.

Listen. Or you listen but fail to act = disrespect, you cannot be trusted. Listening but failing to act indicates that you are either weak, insincere, or incompetent. If you cannot act on a given suggestion good management means you need to respond to the suggestion/grievance with exImageamples of why it is not suitable to be acted upon.

Bullying. This is disastrous for any workplace because staff will at some stage rebel – that rebellion will take the form of official complaints, poor productivity, shoddy work, etc.  Two issues define bullies – they bully because they are confident that they will get away with it, which points to challenges with executive and/or human resources oversight of senior staff. Secondly, bullies are scared, and in the workplace they are most often people who have been appointed to senior positions and lack the training, competency, or skills to fill those posts.  Stop a bullying culture through training, mentorship, and penalties.

Shared values.

  • Consulted staff in the compilation of the values statement. 
  • The Human Resources department needs to take a long hard look at how it operates, and management needs to support them in this. If they are seen as merely a tool of management and not responsive to employees, malaise among staff will develop, and organizational prosperity, and success will flounder.  

Rigid bureaucracy.  Adherence to rules and regulations is key, and the environment is not tolerant of creativity and mistakes. Creativity is critical to progress, and any innovation creates the potential for error. An environment that stifles creativity is stagnant: it cannot and will not grow and the most talented staff will leave.  

Hypocrisy. Values are not lived by staff; they look to leadership to model values but there is a gap between what is being said and what happens.  This encourages cynicism and disrespect toward management.

Unfairness. Employees experience management condoning behaviors that are not in line with the values.

Issues that hinder success 

  • Lack of recognition = disenchanted, unproductive workers.  Bosses who give no feedback, who neglect to say thank you, who never ask after staff families, who lack the courage to acknowledge when they are wrong and to apologize. Why is it hard for executives and managers to be respectful and kind, to greet the most humble first, to be thoughtful, to acknowledge personal error, to get up out of their seats and occasionally walk among staff and praise those doing well, or to spend a little time with those who are struggling and to guide them?

*    Nepotism.  There is a perception that promotions are based on nepotism or favoritism.

*   Reliability.  If you start something, give feedback, consult, set goals, and let those involved know outcomes, including decisions to disband projects.





About Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award winning journalist, broadcaster and documentary film maker. She is the author of 14 published books, including two on Nelson Mandela. Born in South Africa, she has also lived in Japan and Argentina and currently lives and works in Boston as a communications consultant.
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