Standing up to bullies

Canadians everywhere will take a stand against bullying by participating in Pink Shirt Day today (Feb. 24). UBC scholars are helping us define and recognize Bullying. Although they are mostly focused on how to “bully-proof” our children, this unique form of aggression can happen at any age and any level of responsibility. Bullying is not restricted to schoolyards, factories, and prisons. It can affect white collars as much as anyone. Some scholars are now arguing that ostracism is even more damaging than bullying in the workplace, though it is difficult sometimes to see the difference.  An incredible document has surfaced recently. In my opinion, it is textbook material and belongs to every classroom at UBC on this Pink Shirt day. Scholars and students alike should be analyzing it for its tone, its content, its real intent, and its potential impact. Here is a summarized version of this document, which is a memo from someone in a position of power to a subordinate.

  • There is a low level of trust among those that work most closely with you. Morale is low.
  • You are rarely seen to solicit or seek advice.
  • You are deemed too quick to engage in debate in a confrontational or dismissive manner, which is demoralizing to a group of executives in fear of their employment security.
  • Engagement and positive reinforcement must be consistent and predictable and in a manner that is “Presidential.”
  • By not seeking advice or being receptive to it, you are reinforcing a view that you trust no one’s opinions but your own.
  • You must refrain from thinking controversial thoughts out loud.
  • Creating division among individuals whether within the Executive, the Board or the Deans must cease immediately.
  • Communication of change and strategic vision has been poor.
  • Communication releases of key departures have inflamed concerns on campus and in the community.
  • While the communications are fact based, they are void of empathy.
  • You have some key deficiencies in your leadership style that must be addressed.
  • You are fully accountable for your actions and the actions of others who are reacting in response to your behaviors.
  • We are still not certain that you fully appreciate the scope of your accountability.
  • Issues such as low employee morale on campus, the relationship challenges with your key stakeholders and the simmering external reputational risks developing as a result of these challenges are fully yours to own.

This litany of accusations is crammed in one single memo from the Chair of the Board of a major university addressed to its relatively new president. It is worth noting that this was not part of a formal and official review of the president, who hadn’t even submitted his annual report as required.

The veracity of every item on this list is not the issue here, though it is clear that some of them are not easily verifiable. I don’t know about the reader, but I personally find what amounts to a kitchen sink of leadership flaws excessive, deliberate, and over the top. Plus, a colleague of ours had written this about that same president, and we know what happened to her.

“I also had the pleasure of serving on an executive search committee he chaired. In leading that committee he sought and listened to everyone’s opinions, from students through deans. He expressed uncertainty when he was uncertain and he sought expertise from experts. He encouraged the less powerful to speak first and the more powerful to speak last. He did not share his own leanings and thoughts until it was time to make a decision, so as not to encourage others to “fall in line.” In other words, he exhibited all the traits of a humble leader: one who listens to arguments and weighs their logic and information, instead of displaying and rewarding bravado as a proxy for competence.”

Most surprising was my own reaction upon reading the memo, of being angry at the person on the receiving end for not fighting back. Then, an expert wrote from Harvard: one could clearly see the president stuck in a situation where pre-emptive accusations of “confrontational” behaviour may have resulted in an internalization of such accusations as “true”, so that when a situation arose that required him to be “confrontational” to defend himself, he was hesitant to do so for fear of confirming the initial false accusation. 

One accusation corroborates this thesis: “You are fully accountable for your actions and the actions of others who are reacting in response to your behaviours.” In other words, you are ultimately responsible for my anger and my wrath, if and when you ever contemplate defending yourself against my attacks on you.

Call it whatever you like, bullying, ostracism, even constructive criticism, but let’s agree that many lessons are to be learned from this dark and unique episode in our university’s history. This document provides one of them.

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3 Responses to Standing up to bullies

  1. anon says:

    Do I have your permission to cc to a Dean of Health Care and Director of H R?

  2. Dear Prof. As an outsider, my understanding of “what happened to her” is that she successfully stood her ground, unlike the “relatively new president”. This suggests to me that you should introduce changes in the undergrad Maths degree to require the following courses:
    GRSJ300 Intersectional Approaches to Thinking Gender
    GRSJ101 Gender, Race, Sex and Power
    COHR 486A – Gender and Diversity in Leadership
    You also should not assume that the management styles being taught over at the Sauder School of Business are none of your concern. Perhaps the “someone in a position of power” learned his management style there.

  3. still suffering says:

    Workplace bullying is destructive, abusive, erosive and irrational behaviour which is perpetrated by inadequate, insensitive, self-obsessed people.

    It involves control, manipulation, entrapment, confusion and lies.

    Nothing positive, constructive, or enlightened is contributed to organisations by those who bully.

    Status, qualifications and power are acquired and used as a means of creating an image that belies the reality of dysfunction.

    Incompetence is promoted for loyalty and unquestioning support.

    Real competence and integrity are deeply resented, mistrusted and perceived as threats.

    Any means, even the cruellest and most unfair, are used to disempower and destroy.

    Appalling abuse is cleverly covered and explained away.

    A total inability to introspect critically or feel remorse enables the perpetrators to justify their behaviour.

    Bullying behaviour continues, worsens, filters upwards, is well known and yet remains largely unchallenged.

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