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The Cost of Keeping Bullies in Leadership Positions

Today's blog is a continuation of the Bullies In Leadership topic. It's a good reminder that there's a difference between leadership and management.

There is a third category and a fast rising trend in leadership: Bully "Leadership".

Bullies are showing up in droves.

You've probably encountered a bully in some capacity, known one, or have personally felt the stun gun of one. Two words:

  1. Painful.

  2. Ignominious. (potentially humiliating, public shame, discrediting)

Experiencing the wrath of bullies is like an electric shock to the system because your innermost point of vulnerability is infiltrated. No one wants to be publicly humiliated, minimized, or trashed, and that's exactly what bullies do to people. It's part of their defense mechanism to manage their insecurities and fears at the expense of others.

The personal cost is high. People become less productive and even leave their jobs to avoid the experience. When individual business people are impacted, so are the organizations they work for. Unfortunately, most organizations tend to rationalize the behavior:

"Well, he's not great with people, but he IS getting results..."

"Maybe over time she will calm down when she sees our progress..."

These are lies organizations tell themselves to avoid the conflicting drama. The truth is that a single bully getting results is causing 100 other people to be 6 times less effective in their performance.

Bullies don't suddenly decide to change. They feed off of LACK OF ACTION AND ACCOUNTABILITY.

Organizations who allow bullies to remain in leadership positions pay a hefty price for their lack of ownership of the problem.

Last year, I contracted with a well known organization to assess, construct, and implement a new human resources structure for them at the recommendation of their advisory board. It was a surprise to me that this organization didn't have any HR structure in place, but I was excited to have the opportunity so my team and I jumped right in.

I met with the CEO and a small team who would be partnering with us throughout the project, and instantly recognized why the organization was so far behind.

The CEO was a classic bully. He controlled every action, every decision, and every word.

He established his parameters upfront, stating that he would not be doing what we told him because he was here to appease the board. He also noted that no part of the work would include soliciting feedback or talking to any of the staff, nor creating any processes that invited 360 feedback.

The team, afraid of his emotional outbursts, were conditioned to adjust based on his responses and actions. When he reacted with manic positivity, the team members laughed and lightened up along with him. When he was on the hunt for a victim, everyone cowered down in hopes of avoiding his wrath. Members of the team came to us privately to voice their fears, but never voiced them outside of our conversations. They were mortified and petrified.

My team, on the other hand, challenged the CEO to ensure that the organization was in compliance with employment law. It was a huge part of our contract and we were legally bound to perform to its stipulations.

It was difficult to say the least. I personally used my best relationship and coaching skills to manage the situation. We were astounded throughout the project, watching him writhe back and forth out of control like a riding bull stuck in his pen.

The project came to a completion. In our last meeting, we recommended a permanent HR person to be put in place to maintain and build upon the structure we created. It was one of the most incredible meetings I've ever been in, but in a horrific way.

As we made our recommendations, we watched this grown man move into a well-orchestrated melt down in front of the project team. He felt out of control, so he yelled, cried crocodile tears, then stomped out of the meeting, rambling incoherently about how he had to go make a public statement to news media about a controversial situationhappening with the organization. That was the last time I saw him, and the last memory I have of him. A perfectly distracting exit for someone who was unable to dominate the outcome.

Shortly after the meeting and project completion, we were informed that the CEO quickly made a choice to bring someone onboard to fill the HR position (and who incidentally had no HR background, period).

Now, several months later the organization and its CEO are back in the news media due to that controversial situation.

The result of keeping a bully in a leadership position? A rapidly declining reputation of a once respected organization, multi-million dollar lawsuits that will most certainly be proven in a court of law, and the public spotlight shining on a problem that has long been ignored by this particular organization. A problem that stems straight from the behavior and tyrannical decision making of a high level bully whose board knows his impact, but has chosen not to do anything about it.

What Research Says About the Cost

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, you can calculate the bully's impact to the bottom line with this equation:

Lack of engagement +Opportunity Lost + Absenteeism + Presenteeism + Legal Defense Cost + Dispute Resolution + Trial Costs + Settlements + WC/Disability Fraud Investigation = The Routine Cost of Allowing Bullies to Harm Others with Impunity.

Harrison Psychological Associates reports the business costs of bullying to employers where people are being harassed, within a two-year period, is more than $180 million in lost time and productivity.

Gary Namie’s study at The Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute (WBTI), (2003 n=1,000) shows 70% of people bullied (targets) leave their current position of employment after working with the employer for an average of 6.7 years. According to Namie’s study, a target endures the bullying for an average of 23-months before they leave the aggressive environment.

What do you do about a bully?

Many psychologists will tell you to NOT confront a bully. I don't fully agree with that in terms of AVOIDING a bully. People need to understand how they impact you, and you need to express yourself to work those toxic experiences out of your body AND your mind so you can live with yourself. I actually teach people how to do this effectively and how to deal with bullies in The School of Executive Presence.

I will write more in-depth in my next blog, but for now, here is a high level response to bullies to tide you over:

1. If you are in an executive position and you are aware of a bully situation, ADDRESS IT. That person needs to be held accountable and the longer you leave that person in a leadership position, the more damage it causes to your people, culture, and bottom line business results. Bullies help put businesses into bankruptcy.

2. If you are in a subordinate position to a bully, focus on the SITUATION, not the person. I want to expand on this more later, but for now, you will want to avoid making statements like "you aren't being fair" or "you are being a bully" (especially in front of a group). That will only inflame the bully. Instead, say things like "I would like to understand your position more clearly" or "What can be done to solve the problem?"

I Invite your comments, feedback, and stories.

As a business coach, I show business people how to overcome socially complex situations like bullying through the School of Executive Presence. If you would like to learn more about how to deal with bullies and to develop a positive visibility and influential presence in business, contact me for a 30 minute consultant so we can discuss your development needs and coaching opportunities or visit The School of Executive Presence- Currently enrolling for programs!

Angie Nuttle School of Executive Presence


Angie Nuttle School of Executive Presence

Angela Nuttle is an author, speaker, talent remodeler®, and consultant in talent and organizational development. As founder of The School of Executive Presence™, she teaches business people how to show up with executive presence and coaches them to business success. She also works directly with CEOS, Business Leaders, and HR Teams to develop people, potential, and processes that create productive and profitable business environments.

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