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Stopping a bully senior manager without losing your job

By Lynne Curry


I face a situation that has no easy answer and no good solution.

As the newly hired human resources director, I supposedly enforce our organization’s code of conduct and oversee the human resource issues. I report to the report to the chief operating officer, a bully who runs roughshod over any employee unlucky enough to cross his path.

If I keep my mouth shut, I turn a blind eye to what he’s doing, but he’s my boss and according to the five senior partners above him a “leader who gets results.”

I read your book on bullies and you seemed to think bullies can change their ways. Can they, even when they’re on top of the organization pyramid?


Bullies can change—though often they won’t. Bullies can turn on or off bullying behavior. In many organizations, bullies kiss up and kick down, presenting a charming, often subservient facade to senior managers and displaying attacking or intimidating behavior toward peers. In some marriages, a bully abuses his spouse, yet treats his children well.

Bullies don’t bully those who gratify their egos, who can give them something they want or help them succeed or those who are extensions of the bully, such as their children. In other words, bullies choose who and when to bully.

You can’t expect a bully to change his ways of his own volition. What bullies do works for them, though not for others. If you turn a blind eye to the bully’s behavior or wait for a bully to change, you give up all power to the bully.

Senior management has the power to convince a bully to change when they say, “We value you as a hard-charging manager, but we won’t let you cost us other key professionals or stomp on our code of conduct.”

By making a business case that bullies actually reduce bottom-line productivity and create higher turnover, HR professionals can convince an organization’s leaders to step in. This isn’t easy. Although bullies damage morale and productivity in the long run, many bullies produce great short-term results. This leads some senior executives to embrace bullies as hard-charging, bottom line-oriented taskmasters, claiming, “Say what you will, they get results.”

Your strategy

Use two tools to convince your organization’s five leaders that your bully has correctable flaws.

First, exit interview your predecessor and any professionals who directly reported to the bully COO and recently left the company. I’ve learned that many individuals willingly put candid, critical information on the record once they’ve secured solid positions with other employers. By collecting and presenting this information, you may shock your senior managers into realizing they need to take action.

Second, talk your COO and five partners into the benefits of a 360-degree review. Here’s why they might find the 360-review process intriguing—a company’s leaders are often curious about how those under them view them. Further, those in high positions and particularly bullies believe those under them will praise them, because they’ve managed for years to intimidate anyone who might offer negative feedback.

In the past several years, I’ve used 360-degree reviews to assist three organizations to address highly placed bullies who produced great results—on the surface. In two instances, the organization’s chief executive officer contacted me because of “confusing” information received from the organization’s human resources officer or other trusted professionals.

A 360 review surveys seven to 11 individuals about a manager or professional and asks questions such as, “How would you describe this individual as a leader?” and, “What can you tell me about how this individual handles conflict and those with beliefs other than his own?” In both cases, the neutrally compiled responses stunned the CEO.

In the third instance, a CEO and attorney contacted me after 13 women in an organization signed a petition documenting a senior manager’s problematic actions which had crossed the line into sexual discrimination and harassment. They sought a 360-degree review to learn whether the problem situation was resolvable.

In each case the 360-degree review documented the collateral damage the bully wreaked. In all three cases, the CEO asked me to work with their Darth Vader and send them back a kinder, gentler Darth. Each bully, presented with incontrovertible feedback, realized he had only one option: change. All did.

Here’s what I learned. None of these bullies initially believed they needed to change.  Bullies, however, operate according to a risk/benefit ratio. If you can convince a bully they risk more than they win by bullying, they may choose to stop—or leave for a more bully-friendly environment.

None of the bullies knew how to change. Each had learned in childhood how to push others’ emotional hot buttons, with fear, guilt and intimidation, until their targets gave them what they desired. They didn’t know non-bullying strategies to get what they want. When presented with proof that they needed to make a 180-degree change and learn new skills, they stopped bullying.

Can bullies change? You have only to look at the evidence of bullies you know who kiss up and kick down to realize that bullies choose who and when to bully. If you want your COO to change, work with your organization’s senior management and convince them to give your bully an ultimatum.












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