Business/Economy

When a bullying leader is destroying an organization

Question:

I left my job, one that was very important to me, and ultimately left the state, because I worked in a dysfunctional, toxic environment. I wasn’t the first senior professional to leave this workplace. Like me, all of them were aware there was no comparable organization in Alaska, which meant departing the state if we wanted to remain in our chosen professions.

I am still recovering from what I and others suffered from working there, and from the knowledge that I left other good employees to deal with what I could not. I also knew that nothing I or others did could change anything. What maintains our bully executive director in power is the board, who wholeheartedly support her despite the many talented professionals who’ve left our organization.

I told the HR director in my exit interview that I was leaving because of the toxic environment. She’s one of those people who keep their head down because they don’t want it lopped off, so I knew I was wasting my breath. I know that a former employee wrote a letter to the board chair. That also went nowhere. The executive director has invested a great deal of time and effort to ensure the board chair hears only slanted information.

Here are my two questions: How can a board of directors not understand that bullies and other toxic leaders present different personalities to different groups of people? Is there anything I and other former employees can do to compel the board to seriously investigate our former organization’s culture?

Answer:

Yes. You can write each board member a letter, letting them know you’re aware they have a fiduciary duty to their organization, and you have facts to bring to their attention. In your letter, provide them information more substantial than opinion or anecdotal information. As I wrote in Chapter 23 of “Beating the Workplace Bully,” you convince others when you present hard facts that lead others to draw the same conclusions you did. If you need to describe a subjective situation, describe it accurately and objectively.

Boards can change their minds, particularly if your letter convinces one board member that it’s important to look into the situation. I know of one instance in which a board gave their executive director an unconditional vote of confidence after receiving an employee petition making allegations against the director. While the board initially thought the allegations were the result of disgruntled former and current employees, they decided to have a neutral person investigate. What they learned led them to realize the allegations’ truth.

Next, many bullies do present two faces — one to those who might help them succeed or keep them in power, and one to those over whom they reign. Bullies choose whom to bully, and often kiss upward and kick downward. In families, a bully parent may treat their spouse horribly and yet lavish praise and gifts on their children, whom they consider extensions of themselves. In the workplace, a bully may bully one person yet treat others wonderfully. By charming those they don’t target, bullies pull the wool over others’ eyes.

Finally, many who face workplace bullies, whether bosses or employees, assume others will step in to help them. That generally doesn’t happen. Here’s why. First, others may also run for cover as it’s not their fight. Second, those who don’t directly experience bullying rarely see or feel what’s going on. When you tell them your views, they may truthfully say, “That’s not the person I know.” Because they don’t experience bullying themselves, they give the bully the benefit of the doubt.

You have a chance. Write a compelling letter, and individually address it. All you need is to get through to one board member who says, “We need to look into this.”

Lynne Curry | Alaska Workplace

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Managing for Accountability”; “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully” and workplacecoachblog.com. Curry is President of Communication Works Inc. Send your questions to her at workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach or follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10.

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