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From Maria von Trapp to Vlad the Impaler (and Back Again): The Tale of a Mission-Driven Bully

In last week’s Oh Behave! blog post, I wrote about three different ways of getting bullies into an organization. Hiring a Sociopath and Incentivizing Bad Behaviour were two of them. The third pathway was one I dubbed the Mission-Driven Path. You can read more about these very different pathways here.

Maria was one of those Mission-Driven bullies. A principled and brilliant engineer, she had been one of the first hires of a start-up firm that focused on technologies for environmental restoration. Her talent, passion and interpersonal skills were credited with much of the company’s early success in both technical excellence AND innovative workplace culture.

But then they lost a major grant, putting several key initiatives in danger. Maria began working around the clock to try and ensure that projects went ahead and no jobs were lost. She became ragged from stress and from lack of sleep. And that was the point when, according to the company’s founder, “The ever-cheerful leader that we’d teasingly nicknamed Maria von Trapp turned into our very own Vlad the Impaler.” Three critical ‘ingredients’– passion for a cause, a threat to the organization’s viability, and massive personal depletion — had come together to create a bully out of a most unlikely candidate.

Maria began publicly berating her staff for not working as hard as she was. She cut people off mid-sentence and rejected all ideas that didn’t originate from her own mind. She was easily triggered into verbal tirades and displays of temper.

The owner was candid about his own mistakes in dealing with Maria’s metamorphosis. He admitted, “First I dismissed and then I downplayed the complaints that came my way. I told people that she was under a lot of stress trying to save some important projects, and I asked them to cut her some slack.”

But when unusual silences began to reign in their normally spirited lunchroom, and absenteeism mounted, and finally two people quit, he could no longer ignore the evidence: Maria was a problem. So his question for me was … wait for it….

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

The approach had to be multi-pronged in this case, as harm had been done to the workplace culture as well as to individuals. The recovery plan had to start at the top. The owner took immediate and public responsibility for addressing the damage he’d allowed Maria to do to herself and her team by not intervening sooner. He made a firm commitment to solving his company’s cash flow crunch, “the thing that got us into this mess in the first place”. He reallocated Maria’s patently ridiculous and unmanageable workload. He implemented new policies around overtime, and insisted that ALL employees take the vacation time that was due them.

At the same time, staff were invited to participate in the creation of bespoke Respectful Workplace guidelines. Crucially, in the months that followed, team members were given time to learn and practice effective means of having difficult conversations.

As for Maria, aka Vlad? She was ordered to take time off, time that was needed to address her state of utter mental and physical depletion. As soon as she was reasonably restored, she began working with me to develop strategies for repairing the damage she had caused to her team, herself, and her reputation.

Maria was a terrific coaching client, as it turned out. She possessed the trifecta of qualities deemed crucial for coaching success by Dr. Marshall Goldsmith: namely, courage, humility and discipline. Maria already had these characteristics in abundance, which made my job easier. Other Mission-Driven bullies I’ve worked with have had to wrestle with their own pride and defensiveness before they could make progress. The willingness to do so is one of the things that differentiates people who can be reintegrated into the team from those who need to move on.

This company was lucky. The team forgave Maria, the owner dealt with his cash flow problems, and  the organization recovered both financially and relationally. What is clear, however, is that prevention remains the best cure for this problem. The take home message for business owners? Pay attention to cash reserves. Create Respectful Workplace guidelines, and use infractions as training opportunities. And finally, actively combat the tendency of loyal, passionate employees to sacrifice their well-being for your company’s benefit. Failure to do so may bite you in the neck.

Here are some additional resources:

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith

The Bully-Free Workplace by Gary Namie and Ruth Namie

Sleep Well, Lead Better – article from Harvard Business Review

How do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? (Come on, you know you want to listen to it!)

Stop Creating Bullies in Your Organization

Once again this week, I was contacted by a company whose employees are alleging bullying and harassment from one of their leaders.  Once again, the company involved expressed shock about the emergence of the misbehaviour. Whenever I field these calls, I usually am told something along the lines of,  “He/she has always been such a good person / a sweetheart / an ethical stalwart. We can’t understand what’s happened!” I CAN understand it, and I feel for all concerned.

I’ve learned that there are several different ways to get a bully in the workplace.

Route #1: The sociopath.

The easiest way to get a bully on the payroll is simply to hire a sociopath, someone who lacks both the empathy and the capacity for guilt that are present in most human beings. (If you can’t find a sociopath, you could always settle for a narcissist.) Such people often turn in great results, but they do so by manipulating and exploiting their staff and co-workers, creating favourites and outcasts, and resorting to lying, cheating, disavowing or blaming in order to make themselves look good.

These kinds of bullies arrive ready-made. They usually have left tell-tale paths of destruction behind them, in every other organization that they have worked for. Prevention is the best cure for dealing with them. We need to get better at screening out sociopaths and narcissists during the interviewing and hiring process. If and when they do slither into our tent, we must act decisively and rapidly in response to their ethical violations.

Let me be really clear, here: Do NOT attempt to offer these people rehabilitative coaching. Fire them.

Route #2: The incentive path.

Another pathway to getting a workplace bully is by creating the conditions for employees’ personal ambitions to grow overdeveloped and unchecked. In their hyper-focused efforts to meet a target, merit a bonus, or kiss up to a superior, some managers can start to view their staff as mere tools that can be treated aggressively and set aside dismissively. Such leaders can sometimes be turned back into decent human beings through rapid and unambiguous feedback about their effects on others. If this has happened in your company, you will need to take the additional step of re-thinking or even eliminating your incentive programmes, as they can become unwitting crucibles for all kinds of unethical, aggressive behaviours.

Route #3: The mission-driven path.

The third path to bullying is what I’ve come to think of as the mission-driven path. In my experience, this kind of bully-out-of-the-blue phenomenon is especially apt to emerge in charitable organizations, social enterprises, family businesses, or start-up companies that have undergone rapid growth. It happens when you (1) take fine, fine people who are deeply committed to their employer, (2) work them so hard that they become physically exhausted and mentally depleted, and then (3) cut their budgets or staffing so deeply that they fear the company’s survival (or the success of the mission) is in jeopardy. They start to drive everyone relentlessly – including, most especially, themselves — in their frenetic attempts to keep everything afloat. Characterologically, these people are about as far from sociopaths as it is possible to get; behaviourally, however, they can look awfully similar in a time of crisis.

If one of your best people seems to be morphing into Genghis Khan, you’ll need to push ‘Reset’ in a hurry. I’ll write more about this in a subsequent post. In the meantime, ensure that your company has Respectful Workplace guidelines in place. Then TRAIN PEOPLE in how to use those guidelines to engage in respectful, assertive conversations about behaviours of concern.

Here are some additional resources:

The Bully-Free Workplace by Gary Namie and Ruth Namie

Take the Bully by the Horns by Sam Horn

Any of Dan Ariely’s scholarly articles and blog posts on Incentives – start with danariely.com

Introducing a new coaching blog for emerging leaders: Oh Behave!

Much of my coaching is aimed at helping leaders tweak a few key behaviours that are lowering the ceiling on their effectiveness. These often involve addressing some things that the leaders need to STOP doing, and an additional few things that they must START and CONTINUE doing. Repeatedly. ‘Til kingdom comes.

Leaders’ attempts to change their behaviour often flag quickly, the result of one or more of the following factors:

  1. They choose the wrong thing to change
  2. They don’t know what triggers or maintains their bad habits
  3. They don’t have adequate reminders or supports in place to keep their efforts going
  4. They have no way of getting regular, honest feedback from key team members who are in a position to observe them
  5. Something else comes up

Behavioural coaching is one methodology used by successful leaders to overcome these problems, and to keep themselves on a growth trajectory.

Oh Behave! Is a new blog series aimed at highlighting some of the best and some of the worst of leadership behaviours. I hope you will find it both interesting and helpful.

via Gfycat