The turnover rate is high at your company and you’re hemorrhaging money on the revolving door. You’re even conducting exit interviews with every departing employee to find out what’s going on, but nobody talks.

Chances are you’ve got some bad bosses. Maybe even some bullies. Only recently have scientists started looking at why cruel bosses thrive. One finding is that if you’re second-in-command under a bully, you’re more likely than other deputies to become a bully yourself. In a simulation at New York University, researchers found that if the top dog is aggressive, mean and energetic, the No. 2 starts acting that way.

A true tale illustrates the point. At summer camp as a boy, Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, now director of a leadership institute in France, decided with his brother to amuse themselves by hazing. They filled a bathtub with freezing water and declared that, according to camp tradition, all new campers had to dunk themselves. The boys obediently plunged in until the headmaster showed up. He incited the campers to rebel, pointing out that there were 60 against two. The brothers got their just desserts but also learned how willingly people kowtow to authority.

In doing nothing about a cruel boss, CEOs and chiefs of staff become complicit and try to justify bullying behavior by thinking there must be some legitimate reason for it.

Nonsense. Besides direct intervention, here’s how to stop a bully.

  1. The most common form of resistance remains the gripe session. Sharing the misery eases employees’ pain and takes a step toward stopping the abuse. Allow informal kvetching.
     
  2. Keep an eye out for the lone ranger who’s not part of a group and feels desperate enough to talk with you.
     
  3. When you’re persuaded that you’ve got a bully on your hands (this is painful and hard to admit), sideline him or her. Keep the person doing what he or she is good at—sales, accounting or whatever—but remove the bully's authority over your employees.

—Adapted from “Fear in the Workplace: The Bullying Boss,” Benedict Carey, The New York Times, and “Executive on the Couch,” Diane L. Coutu, HBS Working Knowledge.

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