Banish the bullies: don’t stand for workplace tyranny

Banish the bullies: don’t stand for workplace tyranny October 31, 2015

WARNING: If your “bosses” are jerks who attack perceived threats to their authority, this article is NSFW. Send yourself the link to read it later. Then start your search for a new job with decent leadership. Don’t wait!

Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
We wouldn’t want to live in the nightmare of Pottersville. Why would we agree to work there?

“Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter” by Liberty Films
Cropped screen capture from
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Who decided hard work requires tyrannical leaders?

Why do we put up with stuff at work that we wouldn’t stand for from our friends, neighbors, and families? (Some of us will put up with family stuff we should reject, too, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog.).

Some bosses bully, intimidate, and belittle others. Underlings are expected to endure abuse that is condemned in other settings. As the New York Times put it, “Every working adult has known one—a boss who loves making subordinates squirm, whose moods radiate through the office, sending workers scurrying for cover, whose very voice causes stomach muscles to clench and pulses to quicken.” [Carey 2004] …

Unfortunately, what would be considered abusive behavior in families and other social relationships is accepted and even lauded in work situations more frequently than many of us might admit. Pfeffer and Sutton, page 65

That quote is the beginning and end of a section headed “Rules of Polite, Civilized Behavior Don’t Apply at Work,” which is an example of “total nonsense” from the 2006 book I introduced in my last postHard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management by authors Pfeffer and Sutton. I highly recommend the book as a must-read for leaders. It’s readable, persuasive, and founded on research findings.

Tolerating bully behavior at work is just one of many ways we allow work to be governed as if it were supposed to differ from the rest of life. Pfeffer and Sutton made a great argument that we should let people be themselves at work. But that tolerance doesn’t extend to egotistical bossypants.

No, when it comes to work, we have to …

Banish the bullies

Not only are tyrants not necessary, they are actually counterproductive.

[S]ubordinates who perceived their supervisors were more abusive were more likely to quit their jobs. For subordinates who remained with their jobs, abusive supervision was associated with lower job and life satisfaction, lower normative and affective commitment, and higher continuance commitment, conflict between
work and family, and psychological distress. (Tepper 2000, page 178)

While fear of a mean boss may keep short-term performance up (because some workers compensate for others who shut down as described in Carey 2004), the long-term consequences are bad for business: low retention rates and damaged workers with damaged commitment to the organization’s mission. Worse, the problem perpetuates itself, as traumatized employees lash out at others and inflict more trauma and damage.

Pfeffer and Sutton head their prescriptive section, “Don’t Permit Behaviors in the Workplace That Would Not Be Tolerated Elsewhere.” Sutton is also famous for his book The No A**hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

[R]efuse to hire people—even superstars—who are known jerks. [W]hen insiders ha[ve] episodes in which they [belittle and bully] others—especially those with less power—they should be called on it immediately. Page 80.

Bullies break the Golden Rule, and we are justified in giving them the boot.

Application to the Church: Take a hand in workplace justice

The obvious conclusion to draw is that we should not tolerate tyrannical pastors and lay leaders any more than we should tolerate workplace bullies. But we should look at the bigger picture: the church is its people’s best ally in counterbalancing and confronting workplace tyrants. Pastors and lay leaders should not be tyrants, but they also should have the backbone—and the time—to support their members directly in resisting bullying bosses.

Happy Halloween! I leave you with this lovely public photo of Sleepy Hollow, New York, where the Headless Horseman no longer terrorizes the countryside. May you have a similarly peaceful weekend!

Sleepy Hollow waterfront with autumn foliage
Sleepy Hollow is a beautiful place when there’s no headless bullies in the viewfinder!

Image by Daniel Mennerich/

Have you had a bully for a boss? Comment below or on our Facebook page.

Related future post: the power of having a “growth mindset” instead of a “fixed mindset.”

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