When bullying is just a part of the tool-kit of senior executives

This is Anti-Bullying Week.  Although I often encounter it, this probably wouldn’t have hit my radar if it wasn’t because I’m teaching some relatively young students at The Oxfordshire Business and Enterprise School (TOBES) right now.

There’s a very thought provoking article from a couple of years ago in Scientific American by Dr Hogan Sherrow, entitled; “The origins of bullying” (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/12/15/the-origins-of-bullying/).

In the subsequent commentary, it is interesting how heated people can become when something conflicts with their perception of how society SHOULD work. It is in this heat, I’d suggest, that bullying behaviour tends to be exhibited.

Personally, I agree with the implication of one of the commentators (forum184) that the term ‘bullying’ now has such a strong image associated with it that it is perhaps better to see it as just one form of ‘harassment’ and to focus our attention on this instead.

In adult life it may be that we witness harassment, domestic abuse, or one of a host of other manifestations.  In the 90s, I recall an Australian academic suggesting that many organisation development initiatives (think TQM) were also forms of institutional bullying as they presented individuals with an ultimatum – conform to the new social norms of this organisation or be expelled.  This seems to be one of the evolutionary interpretations drawn by Dr Sherrow – that bullying (aka harassment) is a form of control to ensure social conformance of the more powerful troop.

I work mainly in the corporate sector, largely at the top of organisations where I engage one-to-one with leaders. I would argue that harassment – largely, though not exclusively, of individuals – is very much an item in the tool-kit for maintaining the strength of the Freudian ‘id’ of leaders of these institutions.

In business (and the public sector), there are rarely authority figures, like teachers, who can intervene. Instead, I have frequently seen HR professionals collude with this harassment by advising previously highly respected, long-term, executives that their performance is unsatisfactory and offering them terms to leave the organisation. In my experience, this is often initiated because the behavioural norms of the victim (frequently, more passive, socially-invested, and sympathetic to their reports) do not match the more aggressive stance of the perpetrator. Few such victims are in a position to refuse the offer, which is usually made with a non-disclosure clause. They are sometimes very glad to be able to get away because it often follows a prolonged period of private and public humiliation by the ‘perp’.

Given the progressive down-skilling of the HR profession over the last few decades, it isn’t surprising that the HR Business Partner (or whatever the vogue title is) lacks the wherewithal to confront the behaviour of their senior colleague.  It is sometimes tempting to suggest that this wouldn’t have happened in the days when the Personnel Director was on the board, and had the remit to work one-to-one with his or her peers challenging, where appropriate, their behaviours, values, and attitudes.  However, what Dr Sherrow elegantly illustrates is that this is neither a new phenomenon, nor restricted to the corporate environment.

Regards, Graham

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