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Comment: When robust management becomes bullying

By Cary L. Cooper
  • During recessions an abrasive management style and bullying are more likely
  • It can be devastating to employees esteem and self confidence
  • Research indicates that managing by 'praise and reward' is more productive
  • It is important for employers to introduce anti-bullying policies and a reporting system
  • Bullying
  • Gordon Brown

Editor's note: Cary L. Cooper, CBE, is Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University Management School, England; and co author of the recent book Employee Morale (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

London, England (CNN) -- We have just heard this week about the allegations of bullying in the Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office in the UK, which hit all the headlines and raised the issue of "what is bullying and how do you deal with it?"

It is certainly the case that during recessions and downturns, an abrasive management style and bullying are more likely, as pressure mounts on managers and employees to justify their jobs and hit their targets, whether in the public or private sector.

We can easily dismiss bullying as just "robust management'" pressuring people to deliver, and yesterday, but if you are on the receiving end of this so-called robust manager, it can be devastating to your self esteem, self confidence and ultimately to your health, your family relationships, and to your ability to do your job.

Research shows conclusively that bullying is damaging, and is not the way to manage human beings in the workplace or anywhere else. The definition of bullying is roughly "the persistent demeaning, devaluing, harassing and intimidation of an individual," so it is not just a one-off event but a style of management which assumes you get the most from people if you keep pressuring and micro-managing them.

Research in the field of management contradicts this, indicating that managing by "praise and reward" rather than fault-finding is likely to get more from people than driving them ruthlessly, and that "engaging" people in decision making is more motivating than a "command and control" set of behaviors like top-down directives. As Samuel Goldwin once said "I'm willing to admit that I may not always be right, but I am never wrong."

Bullying in the workplace should never be tolerated, and it is important for employers not only to introduce anti-bullying policies but also, and more importantly, a safe reporting system so that employees can highlight the issues they are facing openly, without fear of reprisals from management or the alleged bully/ies.

Are you a victim of bullying at work?

Obviously, organizations have to be wary of employees using bullying as a means of avoiding tough managerial decisions, because there is a fine line between a tough management style and bullying, so an investigation needs to be undertaken to surface the facts, with a view to making specific recommendations about how to deal with the individual/s concerned.

People's lives are damaged profoundly by a bully, not only their psychological and physical health but also their family relationships. Individuals take home the stresses and strains of bad relationships at work which adversely affect their relationships with their spouses/partners and their children, which then reinforces the vicious circle of feeding back negatively into their work environment.

We need to tackle this problem for the sake of the individuals and their families who are plighted by this 21st Century scourge, and not give way to the feeble excuses of the bully that business demands this behavior, it doesn't!

Employers have a duty of care to look after the health and wellbeing of their employees, they need to action it. As Mark Twain once said "keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can somehow become great."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Cary L. Cooper.