Bullying bosses should carry a health warning

Dictatorial bosses are bad news for staff, company and shareholders alike. Denise Kingsmill asks why we put up with them.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 24 Oct 2013

A bad boss can make your life hell and even seriously damage your health and that of the company.

In one company where I was an adviser, I witnessed senior executives literally quaking as they awaited the arrival of their boss. This particular man always made a point of arriving last to the daily morning meeting, which served to increase the anxiety among those around the table as they speculated as to who he was going to pick on that day to interrogate and humiliate.

Interestingly, once he had chosen his victim, the others too would turn on the hapless individual like sharks scenting blood. At least two of these senior execs suffered serious health issues, probably exacerbated if not caused by working for this consummate bully.

It goes without saying that in such an environment, challenge, dissent or even constructive criticism was not tolerated - with ultimately disastrous consequences for the organisation.

I have not had a boss since 1985. One way or another, I have managed to structure my working life since then to avoid that particular relationship. I have achieved this by building my own teams, running my own business, and working as an adviser, chairman and director of all kinds of boards in the public, private and charitable sectors.

However, along the way, I have worked with, but not for, some good, bad and truly awful bosses, and over the years I have observed the tell-tale signs of the ones to support, manage or avoid.

Some of these signs are small indications that may not be definitive but can be spotted as early as a first interview and can serve as an advance warning.

Watch for the excessive use of the personal pronoun. If every sentence begins with 'I', the chances are that they are the self-aggrandising type where every success is theirs and every failure someone else's fault.

The accusatory or authoritarian use of 'you', as in 'you must... ' or 'you will... ', can also be a negative indicator, connoting a dictatorial management style. Look for the more inclusive 'we', which suggests collegiality and a recognition of shared responsibilities.

Its always worth checking the tone of the CEO's commentary in the annual report for a hint of the leadership style to expect. Many bosses feel obliged to lead from the front in order to rally the troops and take them over the top to shoot down the competition or defend strategic goals.

Some have a tendency to see themselves as corporate chieftains engaged in a global fight. The use of military or sport metaphors and the language of conflict is especially common in US leadership models and can certainly denote a particular style that I have personally found quite wearisome and old-fashioned.

The expectation of unconditional loyalty and mute obedience may be appro-priate on the battlefield, but in a modern cor-poration a more open and cooperative approach is needed.

The ability to listen to all points of view before coming to a decision and to change in the face of a convincing argument is the mark of a confident leader and a good boss. I once worked with one of the UK's most famous entrepreneurs, who started every meeting with a clear 20-minute exposition of his view on the issue under discussion before asking the assembled group what their views were.

Unsurprisingly, little was added to the debate, which ended with him feeling disappointed in his team and his colleagues feeling disempowered and disregarded. He wanted a stimulating dialogue but had effectively closed off the possibility of one. A brilliant man but a lousy boss.

Some of the best bosses are those who have come up from the bottom; the self-made men who know what it is to be bossed around and have learnt their management style the hard way.

Men like Ray O'Rourke of Laing O'Rourke, who started life as a labourer and went on to build one of the UK's most successful construction companies: Laing O'Rourke built Terminal 5 at Heathrow on time and on budget, as well as much of the infrastructure of the 2012 Olympics.

O'Rourke inspires great loyalty because everyone in the company knows he is on their side, committing 25% of his time to safety issues and making himself available to them.

He has also, incidentally, been a pioneer of encouraging women into the construction industry.

It is a sad truth that those who have had bad bosses often become bad bosses themselves. Tone comes from the top and bad management styles can be passed on as part of a corporate culture.

Yet it is always possible to learn positive lessons from bad bosses, not least how to protect yourself, how to read behaviour and how to form the sort of camaraderie with co-workers that comes from shared bad experiences.

You also learn how not to do it, and you may go on to become a great boss yourself. The school of hard knocks can be a great teacher.

Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director of various British, European and US boards. Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on editorial@managementtoday.com

Follow her on Twitter: @denisekingsmill

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