CBO – Chief Bullying Officer?

5 minute read

Three years ago, you may recall we wrote a piece about emotional intelligence among U.S. presidents in the lead up to the 2016 election.  In it, we discussed the role emotional intelligence plays in leadership, and how its absence can negate even the strongest vision, passion, intelligence, and drive.

It’s already presidential election season again, and along with all the important ideas and topics the primary races bring, there are new opportunities to see leadership—or the lack thereof—in action. One such example came in early February, when Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar’s announcement of her entrance into the 2020 presidential race was immediately saddled with multiple first-hand accounts of her mistreatment of subordinates.

Anonymous current and former employees recounted instances of the Senator throwing objects in anger, berating employees in group emails, lambasting simple mistakes and harmless writing style choices, forcing employees to complete belittling tasks of a personal nature (arguably in conflict with Senate ethics rules), and generally creating a ‘predictably unpredictable’ hostile working environment known to have one of the highest turnover rates in the Senate.

To be clear, bullying others in the workplace isn’t just inappropriate; it’s a leadership failure.

Workplace bullying is not only completely ineffective in achieving the end goal (motivating staff to better performance), it has a horribly negative impact on engagement, and is a symptom of a leader’s inability to create a sense of purpose or engage those they would lead in any particular direction. If we have to bully someone to get them to do what we’d like them to do, we have the wrong person in the job on one end or the other, perhaps even both. But let’s be honest, it’s usually the leader that has resorted to bullying who’s ineffective. As the saying goes, “the buck stops here.”

When subordinates experience dread immediately upon waking each day, as one of Klobuchar’s employees vividly described, there is no question that employee is going to eventually give up trying to succeed, and will (understandably) mentally and emotionally disengage as a self-protective measure before leaving at the first opportunity. Beyond the productivity lost before the employee escapes, there is the additional expense in training the next person to take his place. As any business leader knows, onboarding and training new recruits is exceedingly expensive. So how valuable is any manager who cannot keep good staff and is constantly costing the company additional money in hiring and orienting?

The Klobuchar story has brought up a national conversation about leadership and how it does or does not look differently depending on the gender of the person doing the leading. Some have attempted to defend Klobuchar by insinuating that her behavior is being called out because a woman is being tough and not tender. The Senator’s defenders have even gone so far as to say that this wouldn’t be a story if she were a man.

We strongly disagree that this is a gender issue. This is a 21st Century Leadership issue. If you’ve been reading our blog for any length of time, you know that the days of command-and-control style leadership are over. Leaders today are called upon to inspire the best in their staff, and they do so by developing keen emotional intelligence, genuine relationships with those they would lead, and a strong understanding of the link between corporate goals and employee desires.

Those that fail to develop these particular skills and capacities suffer the consequences. Leaders who cannot skillfully manage their own and others’ emotions—who do such things as throw objects around staff, whether hitting them with said objects or not—eventually lose the respect of others. And it’s very difficult to cultivate leadership-quality gravitas among people who do not respect you.

Leaders who can’t be bothered to cultivate genuine, trusting relationships with those they would lead can hardly inspire the best work from those individuals. When the going gets tough—and it inevitably does—team members naturally won’t have the back of someone who doesn’t have theirs.

For her part, Senator Klobuchar admits to being a tough boss, stating that she has high expectations of herself, her staff, and the country. “I’m incredibly proud of the work our staff has done and I would not be here without amazing staff,” she told the Star Tribune in early March. “I know I can be tough, I know I can push people too hard, and I also know I can do better—and I will.”

For this week: This is quite possibly our hardest assignment yet. It’s time to examine your own behavior as a leader for signs of workplace bullying and abuse. In an honest inventory of your career, have you ever engaged in any of the following with staff:

  • Raising your voice to them
  • Calling them names, belittling, or ridiculing them
  • Swearing (cussing) at them
  • “Punishing” them in any manner outside your corporation’s written discipline policy
  • Relegating all manual or physical labor to subordinates (especially the lowest subordinates) and refusing to help or pitch-in
  • Throwing objects—at them (hitting them or not), to break something, or to cause a loud noise
  • Destroying their work product and demanding they start over, or consistently waiting until the “eleventh hour” to request extensive changes to work product
  • Publicly disciplining them in a group email, in a group setting, in posted signs, etc.
  • Invading on and making demands of their off-time
  • Withholding criticisms until their performance review, then blindsiding them with a poor review and corrective or disciplinary action
  • Consistently making your own lack of presence, planning, foresight, or work ethic their problem to solve
  • Doing anything with the intention to frighten, shame, or threaten someone into doing what you want or shaping their performance

If you recognize your own management style in these examples, this is your call to change. In many cases, such as the Senator’s, there is a familial history of abuse that teaches people unhealthy ways to deal with negative emotions such as fear, shame, anger, disappointment, and frustration. These destructive behavioral patterns often need the assistance of a therapist to release and replace with healthy ones. Whatever you have to do, get the help you need to change. If for no other reason (and there are likely many other, more important reasons), do it for the health of your career.