No Room for Bullies or Bad Bosses in a Healthy Culture

In our book, Unleashing Human Energy through Culture Change, we addressed the topic of top-down, authoritarian, supervision. At the Tonawanda Engine Plant in the early 1980s, many supervisors could have been labeled bully managers. This type of leadership was common, with supervisors often using their authority to enforce work rules and performance expectations. The methods used by bully managers assumed that supervisors had all the answers and workers were to be controlled, if not disciplined, for lack of compliance with whatever was demanded of them. It was not unusual to hear these managers use negative stereotypes, foul language, angry messaging, and threats as ways of reigning in workers.

We believe this type of behavior drives a wedge between supervisors and workers. To protect themselves from bully management tactics, workers often resort to work slowdowns, absenteeism, grievances, and, in extreme cases, sabotage. The result in the workplace is conflict, mutual disdain, and poor performance. 

Organizations that tolerate bully management will experience disruption by their workers, either through overt or subversive actions. Under bully management, the human energy needed to produce high performance, high quality work, and cooperation between worker and supervisor will be subverted into acts of defiance by the bullied worker that lower productivity, quality, and cooperation. This unhealthy situation can lead to a state of industrial depression, in which both management and workers give up trying to improve their relationship, instead settling on a dysfunctional culture that neither management nor workers want to be part of. 

Don Rust and his management team made the decision that bully managers would no longer be tolerated at the Tonawanda Engine Plant. Managers and supervisors were given the choice of changing their leadership style toward a partnership with workers based on faith, trust, and mutual respect for each other or leaving the organization. This ultimatum was a critical component of the culture change that led to the resurgence of the plant. There is little question that the zero-tolerance policy for bully management sent a strong message that resonated with everyone in the plant.

Lest our readers think that bully management is a thing of the past, we point to recently published research by the Gallup organization that found half of U.S. workers dislike the way their boss treats them. This suggests both an unhealthy culture and a vulnerability of such companies when good workers leave their organization as soon as a better opportunity arises. What this means in a competitive job market is that turnover resulting from bad bosses will be a negative factor in retaining workers. We hope that companies will wake up and develop their managerial leadership through training and coaching. For those supervisors who cannot or will not change their negative leadership style, organizations need to make the choice between tolerating a negative culture and creating a healthy culture. In previous blog posts, we advocated the Golden Rule of Management, a leadership principle based on both high performance and a culture based on faith in people, trust, and mutual respect. In this leadership culture, there is no room for bullies or bad bosses.

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Marie Pazych