Dance of difference(s) – 5 – Bullying leadership
June 21, 2009
When we are trying, as my colleagues at Diversity@work honourably and persistently do, to promote inclusion and confront distractions and manipulations like bullying, we encounter some contradictions deep in our socio-political systems. I honour their persistence and focus by writing what follows, though it may seem I am undermining them. In a recent Just the Facts Diversity Update (June 11, 2009) Mark Heaysman wrote:
In summary, as demonstrated by many workplace surveys, bullying is alive and definitely in the workplaces. To address bullying we need to truly accept it is happening and not allow obvious or subtle acts of bullying to be ignored. The consequences are serious and totally unacceptable.
It takes a comprehensive and strategic approach to understand your landscape, the issues that are around, the policies that are required, the education required, the organisational culture in place, what needs to change, and the rewards for a non bullying environment. As part of any strategic approach to a diverse and inclusive environment bullying must be understood and addressed, not in isolation but as part of a total approach to inclusiveness.
Bullying is us?
For example, you can’t go further than the House of Reps for a well rounded demonstration of public bullying. Try Question Time on the ABC (twice daily when in session). For free you can see varying qualities of: name-calling, personal invective, screaming matches, guilt by association, passive-aggressive demeaning, public shaming, talking over the other, pointed interjections (point of order?), leading questions, trap questions - the whole range of classic bullying behaviours (see here for a representative sample in question format for a quick self-test). But I have to credit our pollies for not going to the lengths of the Taiwan Legislative Yuan, for example, where a good quarterly punch-up seems expected to mark a serious difference, or create one where there wasn’t enough difference.
What you can’t see so easily are the behaviours of role power; mostly just personal power is visible. For the former we have to go into the Caucus or Cabinet room…or listen to the occasional “shuffling” of chair holders. Or try Tim Colebatch’s acceptable face and hidden face of Peter Costello’s influencing in THEAGE. The acceptable is “the swagger of self-confidence, the master of the wounding jibe” and the hidden “he was also incurably vain and bullying”.
If you are 5 years old, 10, 20 or 50, you will get a good impression of what’s expected of our leaders from this mob. The fact that a “good performer” in the House of Reps is assessed by quality commentators like Colebatch to be a master of bullying (Colebatch’s acceptable face of Costello above) couldn’t hurt that impression. Bully to bullying.
Bully role models?
So why start with known bad actors? First, we can find their siblings elsewhere – in footy teams, board rooms, executive suites, local councils. The rest don’t get as much consistently public air time. With the House of Reps we can’t miss that this is really how they act normally. And this is what we expect of our leaders. So, bullying we get.
Second, we keep getting it because the ‘clubs’ to which the star performers belong – among others, the governing, sporting, commercial, professional (don’t forget bullying by the second-most educated groups in our culture: lawyers, doctors, engineers and accountants) – are mini-societies whose members’ prime identity and membership reference points are their peers, as they should be.
Trouble is, when perceived mud comes slinging towards a peer mate, the first reactions of the others is defence of the assaulted. This is probably because they know they may be next in the line, for similar grievances. So, a good offense (disregard supported by denial) is a spontaneous action. As such groupings get ever further from accountabilities to others, the defence gets stronger, and more impervious.
Similar patterns can be found in the protection of the rabid ends of religions’ spectra. All the monotheisms contain egregious fundamentalist sects their mainstreams will not disown. They are closer to each other than to their mainstreams in terms of the thought and feeling structures of their activities. It is hard to disown family.
Leading and bullyship
As for leadership and bullying, the case is already in. Many leadership behaviours fall easily into the bullying frame. Most of the leadership professors and consultants pretty much assure us that leading in any area of life from backyard maintenance to multi-national finance requires capacities like focus’, single-minded attention to detail, absolute commitment to quality and customer service…and so on. All these are creatures of the human capacity for obsessiveness. These apply as much to the intellectual, artistic and spiritual domains as to business or politics.
So, when a ‘leader’ is in the grip of their domain, they are likely to display such capacities in abundance. Notice that, displayed in abundance, they are very likely, especially under pressure, to look and feel a lot like bullying – they will be bull-dozing, pile-driving, persistent, demanding…do I hear bullying coming on? They may be somewhere on the behavioural spectrum from passive to aggressive, with assertive in the middle. Remember that there’s a serious component of perception to what’s felt as bullying (or love or liking, or any of the foundational relationship feelings).
In my first blog on difference four months ago I wrote:
We are entering more dangerous times for difference. As many threats, and a few promises, assail us, our room for response contracts. This will lead to uses of difference (stereotyping, demonising, etc.) which make normal engagements with difference unmanageable, producing a self-fulfilling prophecy of difference’s distastefulness and, eventually, punishment worthiness.
This seems to me to still be the global situation for difference, perhaps more or less so a bit since then. My concern is that bullying, one of the many forces arising in difference, is often presented context free. This context is disclosed by questions like: ‘what sustains bullying in our lives? what are its roots and from what part(s) of the human condition does it arise?’
Hence, my effort above to note the persistence of bullying across all manner of human lives. May it open some perspectives. I do know that not having them in the picture results in the compartmentalising of the challenge of diversity and bullying as if it could be captured in a bag of behavioural purity allowing clear adjudication of complaints. Only today (21 June, ‘09) I found in The Sunday Age that an alleged member of a bullying management process accused the investigators of bullying him!! Courses will always find horses, but not always the expected race.
A good influencing prize?
So, what to do? The Hamid/Brassie obligation to provide a path to progress is always in my mind. I thought I was going to fail again, but here goes. Let’s think about this matter of reducing dysfunctional difference behaviour from a leadership perspective. Let’s get the leaders committing to changing themselves (being as how they are the main ‘role models’ setting the tone and track of organisation life). Let’s stop championing disposable, because pro-forma, attachment to fashionably virtuous actions in multi-polar people and values policies (see triple bottom lines, CSR’s, ‘our values…’ and similar which have funded lots of good printing and facilitating over the last decade).
Something like this: let Diversity@work propose a good influencing diversity and inclusion prize for major organisations in the different governance types – private, listed, NFP and government of the three levels (local, state and national). The prize would be for real (not best) efforts to undertake a bully cleansing exercise at the highest levels. It could, for example, focus on proof of competence (a set of agreed behaviours that are known to be central to influencing others) not to bully and a test period for probationary members of the elect. The influencing activity would focus on agreed public settings in which they function – corporate meetings of various sorts. A small investment by D@W would found a project to define rough parameters for such an enterprise. I look forward to hearing from them about it.