How Bullying for Real?
Business Voice, May 2005
If newspaper column inches are anything to go by, the incidence of workplace bullying is on the increase. But is this really the case or have we all gone soft? It depends, of course, on how we define ‘bullying’. But surely things have gone too far. No longer can managers exercise their authority without the risk they will be accused as bullies.
This makes it difficult for mangers that move into ‘turn-around’ situations. We can all think of those times when a department has been badly managed with slack operating procedures and staff is having a nice easy time. In comes a successor to sort things out and instantly there are the charges of harassment and bullying. This is simply because employees have to start to do a proper day’s work for their wages. In my view the public sector is full of managers that give their staff the nice, easy life. That is why efficiency gains have not followed the big increases in government funding for the public services.
In the public services there is a culture of feely-touchy management that now sets the common assumption of how things should be done. The social services are full of graduates and MBA students who have been taught by teachers that have never been near a ‘real’ workplace. These alleged experts of human behaviour teach models of management that emphasise the need to be caring and understanding. Or to use their language, to be ‘facilitative’, to empower and to engage in practices of ‘job enrichment’.
There is not one iota of evidence to prove that this management style, that both private and public sector companies pay business schools to teach this stuff to their up and coming staff, has any impact on improving productivity. My guess is that the outcome is quite the reverse-nice friendly managers that give their staff a nice comfortable life. No wonder we have done so little to narrow the productivity gap between us and the United States. Perhaps the more abrasive leadership style of American business leaders has much in its favour.
The outcome of this UK business school ideology is dis-empowered managers that are scared to tell their staff what to do for fear of being regarded as bullies. It allows them to renage on their corporate responsibilities and particularly on their legal duties to optimise shareholder value.
There is one sector of the UK economy where management is expected to be more assertive and that is among small firms. Is it then surprising that these businesses are more productive and generally more efficient than their larger counterparts? People that work for small business owners respect the risks these entrepreneurs are taking. They accept they are working for their bosses that everything to lose if they are not productive. They appreciate they will get fired if they do not deliver the goods. They appreciate the take-it-or-leave it attitude of their employers. But the outcome is not persistent charges of bullying as in so many areas of the public sector.
In many private sector companies the problems are becoming as bad as those in the public services. The re-structuring of companies on highly de-centralised business unit principles gives the heads of these considerable personal authority that can easily be abused. It is the inevitable outcome of breaking down the stifling bureaucracy that pervaded UK business twenty years ago. It is this that so many employees resent. The dislike and they are even jealous of the personal power these managers are able to exercise.
And this brings us to a crunch point; bullying is so often a matter of office politics. It is used in power games to ‘bring down the boss’. What can be a better way to destroy a high flyer’s career than the accusation of bully? Suddenly the image of the much admired, charismatic leader is undermined among other colleagues as the company grape vine kicks into gear. And in these circumstances who does top management support? The accuser or the accused? In my experience it is almost inevitably the former. Why? For fear of corporate PR and top management’s pre-occupation with its internal and external image. Unfortunately, soft management practices are not restricted to the middle levels in a large number of companies.
Bullying is a corporate political game because it is so difficult to define. It is very much in the eye of the beholder. That is why, in my view, attempts like those at HSBC to have very precise definitions of bullying that include raised voices are doomed.
Perhaps the best way to eradicate workplace bullying is to change corporate cultures and to re-define employee expectations of legitimate management behaviour. The reason for going to work is to get things done. The responsibility of managers is to make sure that these things are done for the benefit of the corporation, shareholders and, in the public sector, for tax payers. The task of managers is not to give their staff a nice easy ride. If some employees are uncomfortable with this, as in small firms, they can always quit their jobs. Since when has it been the duty of employing organisations to be job protection machines? Or have I got something wrong?
© Professor Richard Scase