Bully for you

Feb 24 2010 by Max McKeown Print This Article

The bullying story of the year began (in print at least) when a muck-raking-journo-me-fellow™ or stalwart investigative journalist, Andrew Rawnsley, of the Observer newspaper, published extracts of his latest book in which he claimed that that not-so-wee-bonnie-laddie, the Right Honorable British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, had been throwing staff around like ragdolls and utilizing the f-word in a manner that rivaled his culinary name-sake, Gordon Ramsey. This may or may not be true.

There followed an almighty clash of the teenie-weenie-titans as Conservative leader, David Cameron, attempted to score political points. Meanwhile, on a local radio show, the chief of an anti-bullying charity said there had been calls to her national helpline from worried staff at number 10. The world paid attention – the story was even recreated in an animation on a Taiwanese website.

Unfortunately, the charity boss didn't know how many calls had been made, or who they had named. She managed to criticize gentle Gordon, claim he was not the offender in question, break confidentiality promises (and possibly the law), expose the business arrangement whereby her 'charity' passed on calls to her 'management consultancy', and be forced to admit that members of the opposition party were close colleagues .

Sponsors of the charity pulled their funding. Patrons resigned in protest. The government enjoyed its best week in the polls forever amid a general mood that having a national leader with Something-of-the-Shrek™ about him was quite a lot better than having a head of state who has uncomfortably tearful heart-to-hearts with talk show hosts or an opposition leader who has his blemishes air-brushed out of campaign photos.

There was, it seemed, a sense in which Brown might actually be the victim of bullying. And of unfair, and unrealistic, expectations of superhuman perfection.

Most of us know that the job of leading anything is stressful. Many of us acknowledge that leading a country is essentially impossible. Following this logic, at the end of 20 hour days it seems only reasonable that our leaders are sometimes unreasonable. Some shows of anger are surely natural and perhaps better out than in?

There is some evidence responding with short-term anger to stressful situations leads to stronger feelings of control and optimism than those who respond with fear. This anger is good for you argument was based on an experiment in which students were told to count backwards as part of an intelligence test and then loudly criticized for not counting fast enough. The students who responded with annoyance rather than resignation ended up with lower blood pressure and stress levels.

We may also suspect that some passion is necessary to get things done. And that this is particularly true of high-performing, high-stress cultures that have to compete hard to win against similarly committed opponents.

The most successful football manager in England (Manchester United's Alex Ferguson) , happens to share Gordon Brown's nationality and his (alleged) fondness of violent language and gestures. On one occasion he kicked a boot at the head of Golden-Balls-Beckham leaving him needing stitches then yelled at the club physio to "just f***ing patch him up". His aggressive team talks have been named "the hair dryer treatment" by team members who, on the whole, praise the motivational effects of such blunt communication.

Recent research suggests that swearing at work can even strengthen relationships and support employees in stressful circumstances. Following around warehouse workers, it became apparent to the authors that many people like to swear, that swearing makes some people feel part of the group, and that some people find it hard to complete a sentence without an obscenity or think of an adjective, adverb, or verb that isn't brought to you by the letter F. This is not all that surprising to anyone who has ever been to school.

But there does appear to be a difference between bullying, a pattern of targeted intimidation, which is discussed in my co-authored book Unshrink, and behaviour which is either just an individual coping with stress or expressing themselves with memorably, even obscenely, colorful, clear invective.

Context matters as much as what is said. Throwing chairs around while ranting about "f***ing killing" a competitor is likely to encourage your top employees to go and work for that competitor. The guy over at Home Depot who told his team on day one that "you guys don't know how to run a f---ing business" was almost certain to lose the respect and well-wishes of his management. But perhaps there is a value to the clarity achieved when the (female) CEO at Yahoo explained to investors that they had too many managers who told engineers what to do with "nobody f***ing doing anything".

Remember Bob Geldoff shocking the television audience into giving £300 per second by using the f-word? Of course, there are more polite ways of expressing need but eloquence is also about being persuasive and there is evidence that a well placed obscenity can significantly increase persuasiveness without reducing speaking credibility.

Don't get me wrong. I'm against bullying. And even – pedantically – against lazy language. But not all expressions of anger or impatience are examples of bullying. A sense of urgency is vital to an organization. A shared feeling of stress can be beneficial. Who hasn't been stung into action by criticism? Unwanted – yes. But still needed.

Without urgency we become apathetic and sometimes it is simply not possible to bridge the gap between expectations and performance without jumping past the subtle defensive games of politesse and politics.

On occasion, language and symbolic actions are required that go beyond dry rationality and provoke, or inspire, emotion. For a leader, anger – like blame, doubt, humour, and compassion - should not always be hidden away.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

Is Gordon Brown a bully or has he no self awareness of the impact of his behaviour on his team?

For me, being cross with yourself isn't an excuse for bad behaviour in the workplace. I have seen this on too many occasions in the NHS as a HR Director.

There is a fine line between firm and fair management and bullying tactics to get the job done. This requires self awareness and understanding that managers don't get it right everyday when under pressure to deliver targets.

I await with interest the results of this year's annual staff survey in the NHS in March to see how we fare on the B&H agenda in the current climate.

We are in the process at 'Consulting at 216' of developing an attitudes and behaviour module as part of our existing management development programme and welcome feedback and views on handling aggression in the workplace, successes and failures.

I look forward to seeing the debate and your views on this subject.

Paul Beal

I think it's incredible that there has been so much editorial in the UK papers about how it's ok to throw your weight around if you are letting off stream because you are frustrated with yourself. If that negative energy is being sprayed around what difference does it make who or what is at the heart of the frustration. In terms of the Gordon Brown saga at the very least there is a distinct lack of emotional intelligence in play - let alone the issue of poor leadership.

I had a boss who used to do exactly the same thing. If something or someone wound him up the whole world would know about it. He was completely oblivious as to the impact of these outbursts of rage. It was a real relief when I found a new job. Like Gordon Brown people who react in this way can be quite unpredictable and it's partly that power of the unpredictable (whether they realise it or not) that creates the abuse and can be so damaging.

Melinda London