Some say workplace bullying is a huge problem that’s just beginning to get the attention it deserves. Others think it’s just another overused excuse for whiny, entitled, thin-skinned employees who can’t handle a little friction to get out of work.
Personally, I’ve seen it both ways and every which way in between. When it comes to how people treat each other at work, there’s quite a spectrum of obnoxious, disruptive behavior. Besides, we all have one thing in common. We all have issues. And like it or not, we bring our emotional baggage with us wherever we go – including the office.
That’s what makes the Petrie dish of drama and dysfunction we call the workplace so fascinating and entertaining. That is, when it isn’t turning our own lives into a living hell.
What’s come to be known as workplace bullying has been around since telephones and typewriters. While it is annoying and messy to deal with, it isn’t rocket science. And it only mushrooms into disaster under three conditions: when it’s part of the leadership culture; when management doesn’t deal with it; and apparently, when it happens in the National Football League.
Actually, the strange and much talked about case of Miami Dolphins linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito provides an excellent backdrop for understanding how to deal with this sort of thing – and how not to deal with it.
Not into football? No worries. This will catch you up: Martin walked out on the team amidst claims he’s being bullied. He’s apparently getting counseling and treatment for it. The alleged bully – Incognito – has been suspended. There are all sorts of ugly texts and videos, allegations of racism, investigations, lawyers, press conferences, and all that.
It’s everything we’ve come to expect from a front-page scandal. And that’s really the point. You see, this is so not how it happens in the real world.
Martin and Incognito are both getting paid their multimillion dollar salaries while sitting on their you-know-whats waiting for the league, the team, the player’s union, the independent investigator, the lawyers, the media, and everyone else to figure out what happened, who’s at fault, and all that.
In the real world, we actually have to deal with this ourselves. Employees usually either work out their differences, have escalating feuds that never end, burn out, quit, get fired, or go quietly insane. There’s no money, no coddling, no media attention, and for the most part, no right or wrong, either.
When I was a young engineer, I had a running feud with a coworker. When it had gone on long enough, we both cried to our managers. One day our manager’s manager called us into his office. He sat us down and said, “You guys work out your differences or we’ll fire you both. Now get back to work.” So we worked it out.
It happens in the executive ranks, too. Sometimes, the CEO or board of directors has to get down in the mud and figure out who the real troublemaker is.
Last year, Microsoft’s (MSFT) president of Windows software Steven Sinofsky was suddenly out the door. The same thing happened to Apple (AAPL) mobile software chief Scott Forstall. The stories were nearly identical: both executives were brilliant and accomplished but so abrasive and divisive that they were more trouble than they were worth.
A few years ago, Pfizer (PFE) chief executive Jeffrey Kindler was forced to resign over his micromanaging and abrasive management style. There were allegations that he’d publicly berated senior executives and even brought some to tears. That led to an open revolt among his staff, a board confrontation, and Kindler’s ouster.
But more often than not, when the bully is the boss or a highly valued executive, it’s the employees who have to either suck it up or quit.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Over the decades, I’ve been bullied and I’ve been a bully. Yes, I know the latter is akin to admitting I used to torture cute fuzzy animals. What can I say; it’s the truth: I’m a recovering bully. So be it. My point is that it happens. A lot. And rarely if ever does the person causing the problems end up getting fired.
In many cases, time passes and things sort of work themselves out. An executive in a large Japanese company once gave me advice on handling a micromanaging boss by way of an old proverb: “If you wait by the river long enough,” he said, “you’ll see the body of your enemy float by.” In other words, be patient; bad people usually do themselves in.
Oftentimes, things don’t work themselves out. Somebody has to take action. I once got tired of waiting by the river and just decided to search for greener pastures elsewhere. And I was actually fired by the bully boss twice. But in every case, things worked out in the end. Which brings me to the prescriptive advice portion of the article.
Leaders: Deal with it. If a problem comes to your attention, talk to everyone involved, find out what’s going on, and use your best judgment. Bottom line: don’t let problem employees or managers harm the effectiveness of your organization. If they’re more trouble than they’re worth, the quicker you get rid of them, the better.
Employees: Deal with it. Try working things out, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes – all the usual conflict resolution stuff. More often than not, the other person is reacting to you. In other words, your hands aren’t as clean as you might think. If that doesn’t work, you get to decide what’s best.
Your options are: wait by the river, go over his head, or quit, in that order. Bottom line: If it’s affecting your sanity, quit. No job is worth that.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.