The complex dynamics in team bullying, part three

Parts three and four of this series explore a realistic but fictional team bullying case study

This is the third of a four-part series that comes out of my work with issues around one-to-one and team bullying over the past 25 years. Over the next two weeks I will explore how the complex dynamics involved in an incident of team bullying play out in a realistic but fictional case study. My aims for the case study are to highlight the need for investigators to be well-informed and insightful about the complicated dynamics that play out both in teams where bullies operate and during an investigation itself.

Presentation and pretence: a case study

The team leader is an experienced professional and technically able but is a poor communicator and not skilled at managing people. Before joining her current employer she worked in a process-oriented environment, which compensated for her lack of people-handling skills. But in her current team she works in an unstructured unit managing eight bright and interpersonally-able professionals.

From day one she feels exposed. She doesn’t know how to respond to her friendly, competent team members and feels jealous that they are better-equipped interpersonally than her. Even though there is no evidence to support her anxiety, she starts to fear that she is not liked and will fail. She experiences a potent cocktail of incompetence at handling her close-knit team members, and uncertainty about what to do to regain her equilibrium. Feeling inadequate as a manager is terrifying for someone who prides herself on a track record of success. The team leader thinks that if her new team members don’t like her then they will at least respect her, and sets about driving them hard.

She routinely bullies everyone in the team. In one-to-one meetings she punishes them in a series of critical, castigating remarks and humiliating put-downs. Rather than learn the relationship-building skills she needs to connect productively with her new colleagues, she undermines and scapegoats them in a misguided attempt to feel better about herself and to punish them for her inadequacies as a manager. However, in team settings she is careful to present herself as apparently ‘friendly’ and ‘open’, confusing her team members and throwing them off guard.

Let’s fast-forward three months. Two members of her team make a joint formal complaint against her, alleging bullying. They state that the performance of the team has dropped because of the pressure of working for a bullying manager. Following best practice Acas guidelines an in-house investigator is allocated to establish the facts. He interviews everyone in the team, including the two complainants and the team leader. Although not every team member is prepared to speak openly with him, he hears verbal reports about the same basic facts: in one-to-one meetings the team leader targets team members’ work in sustained personal attacks, doesn’t let them speak in their own defence, and fails to identify the many positive aspects of their work. But in team settings she makes a point of being ‘nice’, even making coffee.

During the team leader’s meeting with him she presents herself as outwardly cooperative but apparently mystified by the investigation. There are a number of ways in which she could handle this meeting, each of which will shift the discussion away from her bullying into territory that either lessens her responsibility or suggests that the investigator is misguided. We will examine the first of these tactics this week, and the remaining two next week.

Bullies' tactics when dealing with investigators

The team leader outlines a series of fabricated incidents in which she claims she needed to confront team members on below-par work. She names the people involved, characterising them as lacking the ability to make independent decisions or to work effectively without close supervision. She says she isn’t used to working with indecisive people and that the organisation is too soft. She says that if it wasn’t for her the team would have failed. She then remains silent and watches the investigator closely.

The investigator struggles to match up this description of people in the team with his experience of them. He regards them as confident and capable not indecisive and weak. In the silence that accompanies these thoughts the team leader says that her predecessor had bred ‘an unhealthy dependence’ into them.

Using a firm and factual tone the investigator plays back to the team leader exactly what he heard her say: ‘In response to allegations of team bullying against you, I have just heard you characterise your team members as weak and indecisive. But from my own experience of them your team members are all able and competent professionals. So I must ask myself what you have to gain by characterising people who have made a complaint against you as excessively dependent?'

Aryanne Oade has worked as a chartered psychologist and coach for more than 25 years. She is the author of eight books, including Bullying in Teams: How to Survive It and Thrive

Read part four of this series, covering more tactics bullies use when under investigation and the outcome of this fictional case study, online on Friday. You can read the previous installments below.

Read the first in this series

Part two of this series