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Tackling the explosive bully

Bullying is a destructive feature of working life that has proved extremely difficult to eradicate since it was first highlighted in the early 1990s. Bullying can cause immense harm. Apart from the human cost, employers risk litigation, expensive settlements and reputational damage. This article explores the emotional dynamics behind one of the most widespread forms of bullying and how HR can help address this critical issue.

The psychopathic bully

Before tackling a bully, it is important to recognise that a small but significant number have personalities which fall on the psychopathic or personality-disordered spectrum. Focused solely on their own interests, they lack integrity, an internal moral compass or the capacity to empathise. They distort reality to serve their own ends, manipulating others through charm or ruthless aggression. These hugely damaging individuals can be difficult to dislodge but HR should help to manage them out of the business wherever possible. They are not coachable and will not change.

The explosive bully

Fortunately, many workplace bullies are capable of change. This includes the large category whose aggressive behaviour results from low emotional intelligence and the failure to contain negative, blaming feelings when under stress. Let's look at Jacqui, an example of bullying that many HR directors will recognise.

One of four directors on the executive committee of a financial services business, Jacqui was highly conscientious, with a track record of meeting her targets. HR advised she receive coaching when complaints about her behaviour from team members and fellow directors came to a head. While Jacqui's style was naturally quite controlling, she was respected for her technical abilities and for getting things done. When she felt pressured however, especially when her performance was in the spotlight in the run-up to Board presentations, she would micro-manage her colleagues, chasing them before deadlines were due and double-checking their work. Even minor errors or setbacks would trigger furious outbursts. She would attack the colleagues concerned, whether subordinate or peers, accusing them of incompetence or carelessness in blistering terms. On some occasions staff were reduced to tears and one direct report had been signed off with stress. The business decided to act after receiving a deputation from several of those on the receiving end of Jacqui's undermining and intimidating behaviour.

As this illustrates, explosive bullies cause great pain to others. Yet, like Jacqui, they are often high-performers who identify strongly with their organisations, possess at least some capacity to empathise and do not set out to hurt. It's important for HR to understand their behaviour. Psychologically, the key lies in their need to feel competent and in control. Outwardly confident, they are often inwardly insecure and over-dependent on external recognition.

These individuals are extremely task-focused, with high standards and a powerful drive to achieve, and they invest great emotional energy in their work. While this combination of qualities often leads to external success, it can also fuel unacceptable behaviour within their organisation. Executives such as Jacqui suffer from a kind of 'inner tyrant' - a critical internal voice that continually exhorts them to achieve and succeed. The threat of failure - for example a mistake by a subordinate on whose work they depend - triggers painful anxiety and shame. Feeling under attack, the leader automatically responds with a defensive fight reaction. As adrenaline floods their body, they experience a surge of anger. Blame for the problem is allocated to others who then experience the sense of inadequacy which the bully is trying to escape. The inner tyrant has become the outer tyrant.

Tackling the problem

When challenged, the explosive bully is usually defensive, denying their behaviour or placing the responsibility on others. They reject the accusation of bullying and often feel furious that the organisation to which they feel they give so much is attacking them. Difficult as it is, HR and senior stakeholders must ride out these objections. They must describe the unacceptable behaviour, emphasising the weight of evidence gathered from all those affected, insist on change and spell out the consequences of failure. Once this message - repeated as necessary - has been successfully delivered, the bully should be offered intensive specialist coaching, usually with 360-degree feedback, on a non-negotiable basis. Progress should be carefully monitored with improved behaviour affirmed and poor behaviour immediately re-addressed.

HR has a vital role to play in this process. Those organisations who find the courage and skill to put a stop to explosive bullying reap a huge return on their investment. Not only will the morale and performance of staff be transformed but the former bully will also raise their contribution to a new level.

Catherine Sandler (pictured) founder of executive coaching firm Sandler consulting