Insecure manager or bully?

My LinkedIn post recalling a friend’s observation of executive bullying was viewed by more contacts than for my posts about calls for research proposals. And, an HR colleague used it for training. Here it is (below), the first in a series of observations from ‘a friend’.


The volumes writing and investement in training on ‘leadership’ since the 1990s might lead us to expect that all board members must by now resemble an ideal. If you work in HR for very long you realise that this is not the case and perhaps cannot be the case and this story highlights a persistant – if not ubiquitous rift – between the idea of a ‘model leader’ and those often in leadership positions.

At 17:00 the Deputy CEO’s Executive Assistant, Justin, is conscientiously tying up loose ends at the end of an exhausting day. At 17:05 the CEO comes out of her office and asks Justin to find a copy of the 2014 Annual Report. He finds it, quietly enters the CEO’s office and lays it on her desk. She warmly thanks him. At 17:40, Sam, the Deputy CEO, comes out of his office and, quite strangely, reprimands Justin for breaking the management line, adding that Justin should have given him the report to take into the CEO. Justin feels humiliated and confused about why the Deputy CEO would want to be postman to the CEO.

From a friend of mine at a highly-respected brand’s HQ.

Whatever the cause, Sam, Deputy CEO, has penalised Justin for being helpful even though his extensive – and expensive – leadership training at a globally-renowned business school advised to reward ‘discretionary effort’.

This sets Justin off on a coarse of thinking about Sam’s personality, why he bothers doing extra and where he can get a new job. He had read about ‘corporate psychopaths’ and his resentment of Sam makes the label ‘psychopath’ (dropping the ‘corporate’) attractive. But, from an HR perspective, ‘psychopath’ is a problematic term.

Psychopathy: the evidence suggests that between 0.6%-1.2% of the non-prison population (Caponecchi et al., 2012) are psychopaths, so it is highly unlikely that Sam is one. And, the word ‘psychopath’ attached to ‘corporate’ sensationalises workplace bullying and harassment problems whilst trivialising the clinical condition. Sam is better labelled an ‘abusive supervisor’ (see Hurst below) because psychopathy requires a clinical diagnosis and he is highly unlikely to have the condition and those with the condition are not necessarily abusive. So, what could the cause of Sam’s unreasonable outburst be here. Insecurity?

Insecurity: Gallup’s State of the American Manager highlighted that 18% of managers show a ‘high degree’ of management talent. (Summarised here.) Unless Sam is amongst the 18% his management competencies will need continuous development and he will sometimes be less-than perfect, and probably aware of this which, for some, creates pressure to lash out. If he, and his peers, knew the 82% statistic he might feel confident enough to seek feedback and development before it is prescribed for him.

If we consider insecurity as a cause for Sam’s outburst, it is worth looking for what is causing the insecurity. Here, the CEO is renowned for being aloof, difficult to access, blocking board access to the non-Executive directors and a blame delegator. Yet she projects humanity and warmth in public and to junior staff. Senior colleagues feel ‘locked out’ and are always second guessing their boss’s views. When we understand the CEO’s behaviour we see that Sam nedded an excuse for contact with CEO to prospect for her views. Justin’s helpfulness had deprived Sam of an opportunity to get something he needed, access. Sam’s frustration was vented in the wrong direction but is Sam likely to regret this and apologise?

Birds of a feather: There is growing evidence that bullies beget bullies and “that abusive supervisors may empower [and facilitate promotion of] employees with characteristics that hold strong potential to damage the organization and its stakeholders.” This may be partly because abusive people are more likely to have the psychological strength to survive a bully and survive a stressful environment themselves (Hurst, et al.: 2017). This propogates and normalises abusive behaviour. It is unlikely that Sam is a psychopath, likely that he has development needs and likely to be someone who cascades the CEO’s abusive behaviour.

I have since heard that this behaviour is continuing and even increasing as the CEO recruits people in her image. The workforce of intellectually capable (including professors) front-line workers is not happy.

What can HR do in these situations? Marshall, et al. (Journal of Business Ethics, May 2015), suggest an almost military approach by using ‘Search & Destroy’ and ‘Hearts & Minds’ strategies to address abusive supervision. This is difficult without senior sponsorship. I have myself been instructed not to run an employee engagement surveys by a CEO fearful of the results – with good cause.

at my friend’s highly-visible, ‘national treasure’ workplace, it remains to be seen if the new HR Director can find a way or courage to address dysfunctional Executive behaviour which is fast cascading or be a medium, recruited by the CEO afterall, for enshrining an abusive culture.



Hurst, C., Simon, L., Jung, Y. et al. Journal of Business Ethics: 2017

State of the American Manager (Gallup:2015)

Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 128, No. 3 (May 2015), pp. 495-504

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