Effective Management Consulting

Bullying as a Motivational Style of Leadership

By Jeffrey Harris, MFT, CEAP


In a recent training I presented on civility in the workplace, I mentioned to the employees that our instincts and biological responses to threats were initially meant for survival of our species from wild animals, but today our chief threats come from each other.
Each workplace has an occasional bully, and those bullies create a fair number of self-referrals of targeted employees to the EAP for stress counseling. And while common wisdom would suggest that employee-on-employee bullying is the most typical, research from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) reveals the regrettable fact that at least 56% of bullies are managers.
I’d like to take a unique angle to this subject and describe how to support a manager who is being targeted by his or her own manager (I’ll call him/her the director), with the director demonstrating bullying, micromanaging or egotism.

A Definition of Workplace Bullying
According to the founders of WBI, Gary and Ruth Namie, bullying is mistreatment that is “repeated, health-harming, and illegitimate. Bullying is a sub-lethal, non-physical form of violence – psychological in both its execution and impact on targeted individuals.” The Namies go on to describe that “bullying’s illegitimacy refers to the use of destructive interpersonal tactics that interfere with work getting done. That is, bullying undermines accomplishment of the employer’s business interests.”
This latter statement cuts to the core of the issue, that bullying, while not technically illegal, is not a desirable approach to succeeding in business.
I have always thought of bullying as manipulation – the act of affixing negative emotions on the target in such a way that the target must comply with the manipulator in order to shorten or avoid these aversive emotions.

Name It
On the WBI website (www.workplacebullying.org) the Namies propose a three-step action plan to combat bullying. The most palatable step (for me) is the first step, to assign a name to the director’s unwanted behaviors. I believe what is meant here is to suggest that the targeted manager not veil the manipulation as a misunderstanding or difference of opinion, but rather to describe the director’s behavior as having the effect of bullying or micromanaging.
A reasonable director will likely use the feedback as self-reflection and often will improve at self-monitoring his or her behavior. I have witnessed dozens of examples where this strategy worked effectively for the targeted manager.
However, an unreasonable director will probably not conform themselves to prosocial behavior. In this case, naming the behavior will still have the effect of putting the director on notice that there is a problem, and the employee is not going to assume the passive victim role. According to the WBI, this process can have tremendous healing power for the target.

The Function of Emotional Manipulation
So how can EA professionals help combat bullying, micromanaging, and/or egotism? I would suggest that each of these behaviors describes emotional manipulation of employees as a motivational style. We often refer to this type of manipulation as “putting the fear of God in them [employees].”
Without leadership training or effective mentoring, the likelihood increases that the leader will use emotional manipulation to motivate, direct, and correct employees.
Generally speaking, throughout my EAP career I have found that directors who behave badly get away with it because they produce the bottom-line results that are desired by executives. The senior leaders are often complicit in the manipulative style of the bully director because of the tendency to avoid delving into the “how” as long as the director produces stellar results.

Managing Up
One approach for a manager to change his/her experience with the director is to “manage up.” Typically, the idea is for the manager to ask curiosity-based questions of their director in such a way as to prompt the director to take action or to discuss the problem.
For this technique to work, it benefits the manager to be completely free of sarcasm and to display a benign, non-threatening version of questions.

Stick to Core Consulting Skills
Best practices for consulting the target of a manipulative director include the following:

* Facilitate the targeted manager’s search for options;
* Promote depersonalization of the manipulator (see my column, “Turning Furious into Curious” in the 4th quarter 2015 issue of the JEA);
* Encourage robust self-care;
* Help develop scripts for assertive boundary setting that is non-threatening to the manipulator; and
* Prompt the manager to list and review internal avenues for seeking justice. This might include employee relations or an equity and diversity office.

Let’s Keep the Discussion Going
The author invites you to network around all topics of effective management consulting through his LinkedIn profile, at www.LinkedIn.com/in/JeffHarrisCEAP, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/JeffHarrisCEAP. Contact him for a list of references used in this column.

Jeffrey Harris, MFT, CPC, CEAP has provided management consulting to a wide variety of organizations throughout his 22-year career in employee assistance, including corporate, government, and union organizations. The author also has extensive experience as a manager and executive coach, from which he draws insight for his consulting. Jeff currently serves as Program Manager of EAP & WorkLife at the University of Southern California.