7 Reasons Bully Managers Last

A student in one of my graduate leadership classes posed an interesting question. If bully managers cause so much grief, why are so many of them allowed to remain in power? The question got me thinking of the many reasons bully managers, even the extreme ones, seem to hang onto their positions. Here are some of the reasons.

Weak Leadership Above – If a bully manager is allowed to remain in place, it means the leaders above him or her are not doing a good job. If those in charge look the other way while a manager is abusing people, then they are the real culprits. It is rather easy to spot a bully manager when doing a 360 degree review process, so once one is identified, if the person is allowed to stay in a management position year after year, I blame the top leadership.

Also, weak leadership might look the other way because the bully has powerful allies. Bully bosses intimidate people at their own level and higher in the organization. They know the buttons to push or people to pressure in order to get their own way. If a weak leader is afraid of the bully, that can be a reason this person is allowed to continue.

If the bully is the top dog and not beholden to anyone, there is no force from above to curtail the negative behaviors.  In this case, barring some kind of epiphany, the bully will keep on with the same conduct until he or she leaves. Attempts from below to enlighten this person will usually be fruitless; they may even exacerbate the problem.

Sufficing – A bully manager does elicit compliance because people are fearful. The unit reporting to this manager will perform at a credible level, even though people are unhappy and underutilized. The crime is that the unit could be so much better, and the lives of the workers could be richer if the manager was replaced by someone with higher Emotional Intelligence. Many units get by sufficing on a culture of compliance and avoidance and do not even realize the huge potential they are missing.

Being Clueless – I have written on this before. The idea is that most bullies simply do not see themselves accurately. They would view themselves as being tough or having high standards of conduct. My observation is that most bully managers are genuinely proud of their prowess at getting people to behave. They have no impetus to change, because their twisted logic reinforces the behaviors that elicit compliance. They often view themselves as smarter than the people working for them and bark out orders because they sincerely believe they know best.
Another clueless possibility is that the entire corporate culture is stuck in this Ebenezer Scrooge mentality. Hard as it is to fathom, there are still old style companies where management likes to terrorize. The same holds for family businesses where one generation intimidates the next.

Lack of trust – A bully manager trashes trust on a daily basis without realizing it. When trust is low, all other functions in the organization operate like a car would run on watered-down gasoline. The irony is that when the bully manager sees things sputtering and not working well, the logical reaction is to jump in with combat boots on to “fix” the problems. That bullying behavior perpetuates the problem in a vicious cycle of cause and effect. If there is no external force to break the cycle, it will just continue.

Short term focus – Most bully managers have a fixation on short term actions and do not see the long term damage being done to the culture. They would describe “culture” as some squishy concept that is for softies. If you propose ideas to improve the culture to a bully manager, he or she will start talking about performance and accountability. Holding people accountable is a very popular phrase in management these days. Imagine a world where there was less need to talk about holding people accountable because the culture they worked in was one that automatically extracted their maximum discretionary effort. If the vast majority of workers in a unit habitually performed at the very peak of their potential because they wanted to, then accountability would take care of itself.

Lack of skills – Bully managers often have not had good leadership capabilities built in through training and mentoring. You cannot blame a tyrant if he or she has never been shown a better way to lead. Bully managers are often accused of having a “my way or the highway” attitude toward people, but I would contend that many of these misguided individuals simply feel “my way is the only way I know how to get things done.” For these leaders, some intensive reprogramming can be an effective antidote only if they come to the table eager to learn new ways.

Fear means people will not challenge – Most workers are not going to be willing to challenge a bully boss. The fear of getting their heads chopped off for leveling with the boss makes the prospect of telling the truth feel like knowingly walking into a lion’s den. Every once in a while there is a person so foolish or confident that he will just walk into the lion’s den because there is little to lose. This person can help provide shock therapy for bully leaders by providing data on how the behaviors are actually blocking the very things the leader wants to accomplish. These people might be called “whistle blowers” because they provide an errant manager, or the leadership above, with knowledge of what is actually happening.

Occasionally, a bully manager is so extreme that he or she must be removed and replaced by a more people-oriented manager. Unfortunately, it is also true that many bully bosses have the ability to remain in place for long stretches. This adhesion to power is extremely costly to the organization in terms of current and future performance along with a prime cause of high turnover. If you have a bully manager reporting to you, get him or her some help through training. If that does not work, move the bully out of a leadership role and put in someone with high Emotional Intelligence.

47 Responses to 7 Reasons Bully Managers Last

  1. john busillo says:

    In my experience, you need not go past the first reason for a bully manager to continue in his/her position. I’ve seen business owners who were themselves the bully, as they never had a proper role model for how to be an effective manager. Or, the bully manager has weak superiors who tolerate these actions because of the “results” the bully achieves. I would not be surprised if this reason accounts for 95% of all bully managers. Sorry, but the other reasons just seem to fill space.

    • trustambassador says:

      I agree with you, John. The #1 reason does seem to be the most common in my experience.

      • Jana says:

        Take a look at some of the new literature on the systemic nature of bullying. You can’t have a bully without a bully-supported environment, either implicit or explicit. One of the best books I’ve read so far on this is: Toxic Workplace. This book really puts the onus on the organization to not tolerate bullying behaviors and to insist on a bully-free workplace.

        I think it’s important to note that a lot of bullies do not change unless their are severe, public consequences for changing their behavior.

      • Joceelyn says:

        Yes, the bully group is uasully just a weak group with a front man they hide behind.

  2. Dave says:

    Bully Managers usually report to a fiercely loyal director (Their boss) who has decided to support their manager no matter what. This fierce loyalty destroys the moral of those working for the bully managers while empowering the Bully Manager each time they get away with poor behaviour. The Bully Managers love their boss and are a completely different person to their boss. The Boss of the Bully Manager just has one goal, keep his reports loyalty no matter what the cost! Interestingly, Directors who have such fierce loyalty are masters at managing perception of those they report to; they do this so well that often they will win awards for their effectiveness when the reality is that the company is sick and starting to die from within.

    • i totally agree,
      in my opinion too this statement:
      “Directors who have such fierce loyalty are masters at managing perception of those they report to; they do this so well that often they will win awards for their effectiveness when the reality is that the company is sick and starting to die from within.”
      this is a sign the companies is in reality beginning to die, and i have seen some companies beginning like a plane that is going to crush… lose altitudes very soon, because of poor management .

  3. Lawsey S. Thomas Sr says:

    I fully agree with the seven (7) reasons, however, I would like to add that when someone is strong enough to challenge the bully that person often more times than not will not be supported and the bully isi allowed to continue.

    • Monica Robles says:

      You are totally right, I challenge the bully manager behavior, I did not get the support I thought I had from the highest level of the organization & I got terminated. Amazing how top Leadership allows this.

      • Tam says:

        Tone and tolerance are established at the top, I believe. If the “top dog” is a bully manager it will have a trickle down effect, cliques will be started and power struggles begun.

        On the rare occasion when someone does take a stand against the bully manager, the mindset of fear of retribution in the organization is so deeply ingrained that most will not openly support the dissenter.

  4. Thank you for addressing this topic. I agree with previous comments that if a manager is bullying staff, his/her managers are to blame. These managers cannot be described as leaders because true leaders do not bully or allow someone else to bully.
    I will definitely share this article with the people I work with

  5. Larry Maggio says:

    This was a great discussion thread. For those who are interested in transforming the culture of companies with a bully manager at the top, I would strongly suggest you read, “The OZ Principle” by Roger Conners, Tom Smith and Craig Hickman. First published in 1994, the OZ Principle addresses the lack of Emotional Intelligence displayed by bully managers who limit the potiental of an organization.

    Larry Maggio, CPIM CSCP
    APICS Rochester

  6. Frank Castillo says:

    Well in very rare cases you have to be the horrible, evil boss of doom, I did it once with some college students that were participating in a consulting project. I was a mean machine all the way, but I was paid to do find the problem students, put them in a lot of pressure and break their moral if needed, I started with 80 students, ended with 30 of those students. I might seem cruel or bad but it was something that had been done to get rid of the rotten apples. Most of those students that dropped just wanted the scholarship and thinking they didn’t had to do much, some of them were thinking that they were so great and mighty that they actually imagined they called the shots, so one rotten apple got to ten and it became a horrible gruesome process over a 3 month periods of even getting rid of college teachers that were secretly meddling in the project.

  7. Jason Tapp says:

    Great post…true bully managers often hang around far too long because of the fear and bodies that they leave in their wake. After all, it’s their way or the highway right?

    I posted a blog with a slightly different slant on my site, http://www.trueaimconsulting.com. Its called “Sheep in Wolves Clothing” or the “Kiss-Up, Kick-Down Syndrome”. I would welcome responses!

    Thanks Robert! (and all!)

  8. Marcella Simon says:

    Many bullies are functional or corporate psycopaths who spend all their energy flattering and manupulating those above them while abusing their subordinates. Often their superiors find out too late that the bullies have been destroying relationships and morale and they have not been getting the results they claim…

  9. DArcey says:

    My view is that it is misunderstood as strong leadership!

  10. I totally agree with Marcella, bullies are corporate psycopaths. This article adresses the seven (7) reasons regarding bullies from my experience. In my experience, the next level up were totally unaware of the bullies behaviour. Furthermore, when the organisation was aware of the bully and their tactics, they took no action. They finally offered the bully a VER in a round of organisational VERs due to a restucture to rid them of the bully. And this all happen wihin a Corporate Office HR Branch tasked with policiing bad behaviour within the organisation.

  11. LK says:

    I think this article is excellent in identifying these behaviours and, while reading, I kept thinking, “I have definitely seen this before”. My question is, though, what can be done by those who are “bullied” by this manager? How can the behaviours be changed if there is weak leadership?

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  15. peter packwood says:

    Having been in dispute with my former employers for the past five years about there staff bullies. I have been accused by my former superintendent of storming into is office after all the other supervisors had left and that i swore and spat at him. This was put into a report to insult and slander me with no proof other than is word he says occurred a few days before i resigned from the company. I have stated to the company this is 100% dishonest i can also prove i was not on the company site at the time of this disgusting allegation. I would also add that this superintendent and a supervisor Hr employee and works nurse and doctor were all involved in copying defacing and writing on an 8 page medical document of mine and passing it around without my knowledge or consent. I feel humiliated and degraded and if i mentioned this very large world wide company you would be shocked. Also this company has hired a solicitor who they are paying £350.00 per hour to threaten and intimidate to stop me going public. Please respond.

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