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What if the bully is the Boss?


I read Seth Godin every chance I get — highly recommend reading just about everything he writes. There has been a lot written and discussed regarding bullies recently, and Seth had a great take on the subject, as usual. Read it here.

As I read his post on bullying, something stuck in the back of my mind. What if the bully is the boss? Seth used the following definition for bullying.

I define bullying as intentionally using power to cause physical or emotional distress with the purpose of dominating the other person.

For me, the word “distress” keeps going through my head. Distress plays key roles in both business and this definition of bullying. There has been a long line of people considered as iconic business leaders who have used distress to pave their way to success.

Distress as a management tool

Some of the more widely known examples of distress as a management tool include:

  • Jack Welch at GE – The “Rank ‘em and yank ‘em” performance approach to remove “low performers” each year. His approach to strategic planning: be first or second in your market or you won’t be a GE company.
  • Larry Ellison at Oracle – I want to keep this post under 500 words, so I’ll just list his name. You can do the Internet search on your own.
  • Jeff Bezos of Amazon – After reading a meeting document, he famously said “This document was clearly written by the B team. Can someone get me the A team document? I don’t want to waste my time with the B team document.”

I’m not calling these guys bullies, not at least like a Richie Incognito, but by most accounts they are considered very successful and they have shown a clear use of distress to motivate a company and/or employee base. Who wants to be on the B team?Who wants to be identified as in the low-performing category?

Finding a way to make it work

The question begs, though, how do organizations thrive when the boss might use bullying tactics to motivate? One approach might be to fill the organization with bullies and leave everyone to fend for himself or herself.

I have seen a more constructive approach where there is a layer of staff who can manage within the world of a bully and buffer those that don’t work well when motivated by coercion. The bully can get things done, for sure. This group follows behind the bully and triage the organization. Give a nice burial to those that won’t make it, heal the wounded, and encourage those that made it through relatively unscathed. They translate the bully’s world of chaos into terms most employees prefer: structure, direction, clear expectations, feedback, collaboration, and growth.

I say those in this group are the real leaders!


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