How to Handle Workplace Bullies
You know who they are. They’re your star performers. They get results like no one else on your team. Their numbers are consistently above those of their peers. You can’t wait to see what they will accomplish next. But they are also workplace bullies.
Too often, the underbelly of great results is costly behavior. Stars who are driven and focused may pay little attention to the needs of their team and adapt a “results at all costs” approach. They may be overly aggressive, push their team hard, and fail to develop any bench strength. More often than not, they end up alienating peers and direct reports. The trick is their behavior often gets reinforced because they are recognized for their achievements.
These aren’t just “bad habits” but corrosive behaviors that require intervention. Bullying has consequences: increased stress, turnover, and diminished productivity. Those who work for bullies are more likely to quit and more likely to report stress. Addressing bullying for what it is — and the toll it takes — is a critical leadership skill.
Here are five steps to handling workplace bullies and mitigating their harm on your team:
- Explain that performance is more than results. Short-term results don’t compensate for long-term attrition and pain. Leaders often hold back from giving star performers frank feedback when they should be giving them more. Tell your star performer that results that come at costs to team morale and the long-term health of the organization will not be rewarded.
- Show them evidence. Help the bully see the consequences of his behavior and develop the self-awareness to understand his impact on others. Use concrete examples of how he bullies. You may have data as tangible as turnover rates or you may play back to him what you are hearing from his team. Don’t give in to excuses or rationalizations; bullies often think that others are too sensitive or even jealous of their performance. You may find that this is too hard for you to do as his boss. If so, consider hiring an executive coach.
- Give the bully “people goals”. Chances are your bully will argue that his behavior is necessary to reach his goals — goals that you have likely set. In order to focus him on the right behaviors, give him “people goals” that he can aspire to meet as well. These may include reducing team turnover by 50% or increasing employee satisfaction.
- Put your money where your mouth is. The worst thing you can do is urge a bully to transform his behavior and give him a stellar bonus in the same year. If your compensation system is based on hard numbers that don’t show the real story behind the performance, your bully will have no reason to change his ways. If your bully is burning through people or behaving inappropriately, be sure his bonus reflects your dissatisfaction. A smaller bonus will not reform your bully, but it will get his attention.
- Real bullies need to go. No matter how good a bully’s results are, if he is harassing, threatening, degrading or humiliating employees, he needs to go. This behavior will have a deleterious effect on your company’s culture and may be illegal in cases where it involves discrimination (consult your HR or legal counsel). Be sure you have policies in place that allow you to handle the bullying swiftly and that encourage employees to report inappropriate behavior.