Devils in the Workplace – part 3

In a great book Bob Sutton has talked about his no asshole rule (No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t) and he has evangelized the idea of a workplace free from bullying.

We are reaching a stage in our society where it is time to say no to the bullies, to say no to bad behaviour, to demand a civil society within our workplaces.

But thinking about the causes of bad workplace behaviour led to a realisation that it is often caused by fear and uncertainty. Now that we are moving into an economic downturn it is likely to continue that fear driven behaviour. Thus poor behaviour in the workplace is even less likely to be addressed. People who fear losing their job in a time of rising unemployment are unlikely to speak out. People who fear that they will lose their job if they fail to meet targets can choose to drive other employees using tactics of fear.

It is time for us to recognise that much of our own bad behaviour in the workplace is driven by fear. And it is time for us to find the resolve and strength of character to be better people than fear would have us be. Like the cartoon says “admitting you’re an asshole is the first step”.
Devils Part 1
Devils Part 2
Devils Part 3

Devils in the Workplace – part 2

What does this work devil phenomenon tell us about the modern workplace? It tells us that in spite of the rhetoric about caring for staff, the reality is that as long a manager is seen as delivering results it does not matter what damage is done to the human beings involved in the process.

If the well being of staff members were important to companies then work devil behaviour by managers would be completely unacceptable. Instead, the damaging behaviour is often rewarded (as long as it is accompanied by good financial results) and results in disempowering and discouraging those suffering under the reign of terror. Sometimes, when a staff member tries to speak out about the work devil‘s behaviour, it is made clear that they should just keep quiet and not rock the boat. This has happened to colleagues and to me over the years. During these encounters with other managers (either senior managers to the work devil or human resources managers), it becomes clear that these people are afraid of confronting the bad behaviour of the work devil. It would be very interesting to know if this fear is simply a fear of confrontation or if they too are terrified of the work devil?

Another interesting question: Is there something inherent in the way workplaces are organised that makes it easier or possible for people to display work devil behaviours? Obviously, the scale of the bad behaviour is not the same as in the concentration camps, but the pattern is similar. In the work devil phenomenon individuals demonstrate a disconnect between their private and public behavioural personas. Is the connecting emotion between the two (i.e. workplaces and concentration camps) the emotion of fear?

Is fear what drives a person to disconnect from the private mode of being – which is kind and loving – to display a special work mode of being?

What Can Be Done About a Work Devil? If you work for a work devil then there is a decision to be made. Either you stay and put up with the behaviour and consequent feelings of stress, or leave and take the chance that you will not be unlucky two times in a row.

If you are a manager, the best thing that you can do is to stop the behaviour at inception. As soon as you see or hear of any of your team members displaying work devil behaviours counsel them. Make the ground rules for behaviour in your team clear to everyone. Usually upon taking over a new team I hold an introductory meeting – laying out the ground rules – and these usually include statements like:

“I do not care what you think about each other or how you feel about each other. We are here to do a job. In this team, we treat each other with courtesy. We treat our colleagues with courtesy (even if you happen to hate one of them). We always treat our customers with courtesy as well. We do this because we are professionals and we act like it. We are all on the same team and it is important that we act like it. Our team will do well if we all work together. Together we can achieve more together than individually – that’s why we build teams.”

Of course, if this is just rhetoric, the staff see right through it very quickly and become cynical. If you model the behaviour and ensure that all other management staff model the behaviour then the rest of the staff will follow on. However, if you allow even one manager to get away with not modeling the behaviours, then you lose the trust of the staff, look insincere AND you become complicit in the work devil‘s bad behaviour. This is a moral issue for managers. We must ask ourselves if we are willing to participate in this, after all as the English philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

It is possible to deliver good results for your organisation and to treat the people that deliver those results as human beings. In fact, it is easier to sustain good results if there is lower staff turnover and staff are not anxious or stressed.

Work Devils in Comedy & Drama: The following are entertaining examples of what not to do:

  • David Brent – the boss in The Office (BBC)
  • Gordon Gecko – in the film Wall Street (Oliver Stone 1986)
  • Any boss in Dilbert –
  • Franklin M. Hart Jr. – the boss in the film Nine To Five (Colin Higgins 1980)
  • Katharine Parker – the boss in the film Working Girl (Mike Nichols, 1988)

More on this topic later …
Devils Part 1
Devils Part 2
Devils Part 3

Devils in the Workplace – part 1

We have all done it – putting on the special telephone answering voice as we pick up the phone. In our daily life, we use many different personas. This is not a bad thing as this helps us to navigate our way through daily interactions. But there is a phenomenon occurring in offices all over the world that is disturbing.

My mother used to call me a “street angel and a house devil” because I often behaved well in public but was a tearaway at home; luckily I have out-grown those unfortunate behaviours. There are many people in workplaces today who are acting in the opposite way. That is they are “house angels and work devils”. These individuals may be known to their families and friends as charming and delightful people. However, to those unlucky enough to cross their path in the workplace the meeting is with a bully, tyrant, and emotional saboteur.

A friend gave me a book to read on psychopaths in the workplace (Working with Monsters). Based upon that book and other reading it does not seem as though these work devils are psychopaths in the classic form. But having seen the damage done by these work devils, there must surely be some kind of psychopathology behind such dreadful behaviour and bad treatment of other people? But evidence of several cases where I have known the work devil on a social basis showed clearly that these people are quite charming in a social context. Even in work based social contexts, such as lunches or dinners, the work devil can display charm and be a pleasant person to interact with. But as soon as they are back in the office setting, the work devil reappears.

It is important to note that, while work devil behaviour can be displayed at any level within an organisation, it is most generally displayed amongst managers and supervisors. I suspect that this is because of the greater power that managers and supervisors exercise in the workplace. The work devil behaviours that I have seen displayed in workplaces include (but are not limited to):

  • Walking past every staff member and not greeting them or acknowledging them in any way
  • Screaming at an individual about a problem that they had nothing to do with while in an open office
  • Gossiping about staff to other managers to avoid losing them to another internal role
  • Yelling at a staff member in a large meeting that they were stupid
  • Lying to staff and then pretending they did not lie
  • Setting impossible targets for staff to ensure that they cannot meet achieve a bonus
  • Micromanagement, micromanagement, micromanagement, micromanagement, micromanagement, micromanagement
  • Isolating individuals from information they need to do their job, not inviting them to important meetings
  • Going through a staff member’s personal possessions
  • Doing something wrong then pretending it was one of their staff who did it

What is difficult to encapsulate in a bullet point is the way that a work devil can chip away at your sanity and self esteem on a daily basis. Leaving you feeling stupid and ineffectual. There is good stress and bad stress at work. The feeling you get from a work devil is definitely bad stress (see Lenson’s Good Stress, Bad Stress).

The most frightening issue with many of the behaviours listed above is that they are often public displays, yet rarely does any person in authority take action to stop the behaviour. Rarely have I seen a senior manager take the work devil aside and counsel them. Never have I seen a work devil fired due to their continued bad behaviour. Often in spite of high levels of staff turnover in their department and clear suffering of stress by their staff the work devil is allowed to continue their reign of terror.

What makes the work devil think that it is acceptable to act in horrible ways at work? Why do they act that way at work and not at home? Is it because at home nobody would put up with that kind of behaviour? Does this mean that the work devil is being authentic in one place and not in the other? Which place is the one where they are being authentically themselves – home or work? What would their families and friends think if they could see the work devil in action?

An interesting thing to note is that some of the most brutal commandants of the Nazi concentration camps (e.g. Rudolf Hoess also displayed this work devil pattern. They were known to their families as kind and gentle people, noted for their kindness to animals, but displayed dreadful inhumanity and cruelty in the workplace.

More on this topic later…

Devils Part 1
Devils Part 2
Devils Part 3

More on Bullies @ work

Recently I posted on bullies @ work & made some fairly harsh comments about a colleague who had been doing this sort of thing often and openly. The other day I actually had some time to talk with this person and discovered that they had been going through a very difficult time at work. It seems that the behaviour I was seeing was a reflection of the behaviour that was being displayed by this person’s own superior. Also the other day I was under a lot of pressure from senior management and was very snappy with a few of my own team members. This really got me thinking that bullying is not just an incident – it is really a culture.

The nature of bullying is that it is tied to the power relations of a workplace. These are still essentially hierarchical (in spite of what organisational management theorists would have use believe). Further, the threat of job loss or downsizing means many people operate in a fearful way. All of this goes towards making bullying almost inevitable.

What can people do about this? How can people low down on the food chain make it stop? I do not have the answer, but many folk I know are going out on their own to escape. It is definitely one response. But those of us in management positions have to ask ourselves do we want to leave the world of work just as dysfunctional when we leave it as when we arrived?

Bullies @ work

I am getting really tired of bullying in the workplace. I’ve worked in many places – being in info tech I change jobs every two years – and the bullies are mainly babyboomer men (there do not seem to be many women bullies where I’ve worked).

At the moment there is someone who is in a hierarchically superior position in the workplace and who screams at people for real or imagined infractions, and calls them stupid in front of the entire office. The strange thing is everyone is letting this person continue acting like this! I seem to be the only person who thinks this is wrong behaviour that must be stopped.

One thing I know is that a lot of people are thinking about leaving their jobs because of this one person. Strangely enough all it takes is this bully’s own manager to speak up that this behaviour is not acceptable.

Why is it that management can be simultaneously running programs to make this a better place to work but still let this guy abuse and emotionally destroy people, tearing them apart verbally. They do not seem to perceive that their rhetoric is not balanced with action.

In short, people in this company are not modeling the behaviours they are articulating in their values. We can see what is happening and it is undermining all the good work. What good are corporate values if staff are crying in the toilets due to a workplace bully who is part of the management?