The issue of bullying at school is well-known and reasonably well understood. But workplace bullying is just as big a problem. In the US, for example, 27% of employees have experienced bullying, and managers are the main cause.

Wherever you find people who are driven, ambitious and strong-willed, there’s potential for bullying. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that some of the people reading this are workplace bullies.

What is workplace bullying?

The first problem is the word ‘bully’ itself. It conjures up images of a hulking schoolboy who wanders around the playground demanding lunch money and threatening to push smaller kids’ heads down the toilet. That’s the stereotype, and it endures because there’s some truth in it. School days can still be rough, and there’s no shortage of bullies even today.

But the word ‘bully’ doesn’t translate well into the workplace. Nobody’s going to demand money with menaces. Nobody will push someone’s head down the toilet. Workplace bullying is more subtle, but no less damaging.

It can appear in many different ways: being rude to employees, belittling them in meetings, ignoring their contribution to the business, making derogatory personal comments. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list. In brief, workplace bullying is anything that undermines someone’s self-esteem.

You might be the problem

You have a vision. You started your business with clear goals in mind. You are ambitious, driven and hard-working. You’re not just in it for the money. You’re reaching for the stars and striving for success in your field.

Your staff aren’t like that. They are employees, which puts them in a different category. They may be great at their jobs, but they have lives of their own. They don’t have the same financial or emotional investment in your business that you do.

This means you can’t drive them as hard as you drive yourself. If you attempt to do that, you’ll become a bully.

Bullying is subjective

If someone believes they are being bullied, then they are. There’s no room for debate. And this is a problem for entrepreneurs and business owners. Here’s a useful generalisation:
•Some of your staff will thrive under pressure. Some of them will need the cortisol and adrenaline kick that they get from deadlines and big achievements against the odds. Otherwise they won’t perform to the best of their abilities. Salespeople often, but not always, fall into this category.
•Other staff need room to work at their own pace. They will produce their best work when left to concentrate on a problem, with no distractions. The more pressure they’re under, the worse they’ll perform. Creative people are more likely to be in this category.

It’s your job, as manager or business owner, to identify which of your staff work best under which circumstances. At the very least, that means asking them. But if you want to be a really good manager, you’ll watch them, learn about their personalities and then find the best motivators for each one.

If you apply too much pressure to any of your staff, you’ll become a workplace bully. It might seem unfair, but nobody said good management was easy. You must apply the right kind of leadership, using the carrot and not the stick.

A personal experience

In the late 1990s some friends of mine had a great idea for an internet business. They asked me to join them as a content consultant, and hired some talented developers and salespeople. Soon afterwards, my friends hired someone to manage the business.

He was certainly driven. He won big clients, increased revenue and dragged the business towards an IPO. But he also bullied the staff by insulting them, swearing at them and belittling their work. He eventually drove half of them away and demotivated the rest.

The dotcom bust arrived just before the business was due to float on the stock exchange. It imploded, its remaining staff left jobless.

There’s a lesson here. With a better manager this business might have reached its goal sooner. Happier staff could have taken it to IPO before the dotcom bust. Bullying killed the business.

So take a look at your own management style. Understand the differences between you and your staff, and between each member of staff. Treat the people who work for you with respect, empathy and consideration. It’s one of the most important things you’ll ever do.

Alex Cruickshank has been a business writer since 1994 and a serial entrepreneur since 1996. He owns Ministry of Prose, a writing agency based in New Zealand.

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