Bullying in the Boardroom
Bullying in the boardroom can take a variety of forms, but none of them are acceptable. Yet in an environment where no one is the “boss” it can be difficult to control this behavior. Directors have a variety of tools to use to counter the bully including written policy and parliamentary procedures, among others. Often it requires many simultaneous approaches. But one thing is certain – bullying cannot be tolerated.
By Kevin Smith
I’m finding that my blog posts are feeling more and more negative these days. Just look at today’s title. It’s a bit depressing. However (comma) my desire in this space is to provide help based on a wide range of boards I’ve observed, interacted with and heard from. So, I suppose it’s not actually a benefit for me to simply provide pep talks, and rah-rah speeches here, though I will work on a post that does share all of the great things I see as well.
Now – on to the topic. Bullying in the boardroom.
Forms of Bullying
Bullying can take on many forms. Intimidation. Interrupting. Condescending talk. Demeaning jokes at a colleague’s expense, in front of a group or behind their backs. Withholding critical information. Harassment. Side talk. Snide body language. Social isolation (not including someone). There are probably endless examples well beyond what I’ve provided. As a matter of fact, I’d like you to add to my list. Please add the examples that you’ve seen. It’s not only cathartic, but it may help someone else reading this to see and perhaps realize that they are dealing with a bully. (It’s not always black and white.)
No Simple Answers
Movies and TV will have you believe that simply standing up to the bully will cause him or her to back down. This may be true some of the time, but I’ve been witness to times when it doesn’t. Rarely do you get a storybook ending where Prince Humperdink (the bully) gets put in his place with a raised voice and a threat of retribution. It’s usually more complicated than that.
The Effects of Bullying
One thing is for sure, bullies of all kinds and all sorts are detrimental and must be stopped.
- Shut down discussion that doesn’t go their way
- Intimidate people from providing perspective
- Affect the tone and culture of the group
- Make it difficult to recruit new members
- Make trust impossible
- Create an environment where staff have reason to hide things.
Bullies do this and more and worse.
How to Counter a Bully in the Boardroom
You probably know and understand how unique the boardroom dynamic is. Directors are at the top of the hierarchy for the organizations, but there is no hierarchy among the board members. They are equals. This complicates the dynamic. And when someone uses intimidation any bullying tactics, the remedy lies with solely with the peers in the room. It can be extremely difficult to stand up to this behavior. Most of us don’t exhibit these traits and aren’t comfortable using them or leaning into the confrontation and conflict needed to stop it. So, what to do about it?
Written Policy as a Tool
The strategic governance approach that we take here at TEAM Resources relies heavily on written policy in order to establish the clear tone and approach of all things that the board will do. This doesn’t just mean about liquidity targets and ALM investment limitations. This is also policy about how the board behaves and approaches its work. This plays out in things like what the ongoing education for each board member will be, and in how the board will speak with one voice, where no individual director will have any authority over the CEO or staff.
Now, it might be hard to write, “there’s no bullying in the boardroom.” But you can write about the expected tone of respect for all involved people in the organization. It’s an area that everyone thinks ought not need to be said … until it is. By starting at a very foundational level and saying what people generally presume, the board establishes basic ground rules in writing. And when it’s time to put this in writing, the board as a whole has to discuss this and agree upon the terms and terminology. You verbalize what generally goes unsaid and presumed. And ultimately, you have a vote on accepting the policy. Now you have a foundation for when someone is not following the policy. The board then has an agreed upon document. This prevents the need for one, sole courageous sole needing the speak up alone.
(Most of the time when I talk to directors one-on-one about confronting a bully, they tell me that others on the board will discreetly tell them that they agree. This can be frustrating when you want everyone to speak up. Try to be patient. At very least, you are building a coalition against the bad behavior. Standing up to a bully is difficult.)
Majority Rule and Voting as a Tool
But when ratifying policy is not the only time that boards vote. The quorum or the majority works in your favor when countering the bully. Using the voices of the majority when a motion is called can outweigh the bully, particularly when you already know that others on the board are struggling with the problem behavior. Calling for a motion and a vote, if well prepared and knowing the temperature of the room can make the problem more clear. It can call out the elephant in the room.
This approach may need some preparation and planning. The worst thing that can happen is a motion and a vote that comes as a surprise, from out of nowhere. For those who do not like conflict, being put on the spot like this may make them abstain and stay quiet. But when handled thoughtfully, this approach can bring forth a strong, unified front against the bully’s behavior. It may be enough to be a wakeup call, or to make the bully realize that the intimidation won’t work against a group.
Good ‘Ol Roberts Rules of Order
I’m not a fan of Roberts and his rules, in general. They can be archaic and stifling. But parliamentary procedure can be a helpful approach when struggling with a bully. This is best wielded by a confident board chair. These procedures can help to reel in an unruly board member.
Holding Yourself Accountable
It’s very ironic and counterintuitive, but holding yourself accountable is a great tool for countering bullying in the boardroom. By actively asking for constructive criticism, and feedback about your work and behavior is a modeling the behavior that you value. You are setting the example that you have a growth and a learning mindset, that you don’t think you are perfect and that you expect to grow. This approach also verbalizes attitudes for the whole room that often go unsaid, or are whispered in the hallways. Doing this invites and encourages feedback. This can be contagious when encouraged. And again, it makes explicit the expected tone. Now, I’m not suggesting that when you do this the bully will jump right in and ask for feedback. But you are starting a process for buy in on this approach. I could write an entire section on board self-assessments. These too can be helpful, but only if people are willing to vocalize their objections to bullying behavior, which is often the sticking point. If you know TEAM Resources you know we are big proponents of board self-evaluations. The process of accountability is very much related.
Few Bullies Think They’re Bullies
I have heard of a few occasions where a bully was self-proclaimed as such. But that’s pretty rare. Generally speaking, people don’t think they’re a bully. They may need to have that pointed out to them. That’s rarely easy. I’m not suggesting that anything I’ve proposed above will be simple. It’s just not. And that’s often the reason why the offender gets away with it for so long. But I do know that what I’ve laid out has worked. These are approaches that band people together for a unified voice. You may get through to a person and be the catalyst for positive change. (We can hope, can’t we?) You may be able to back a bully down by neutralizing their tactics through boring procedure. You may be able to force them to see that they are outnumbered and that it’s time to go.
I laughed out loud when I saw this title come up. Because I have experienced too much bullying behavior. And it really is not funny at all. But, as the saying goes, misery loves company, at least I’m not alone in dealing with bullies. Your bullet points describing the bullies is right on point. I’ve seen too much control relinquished because it IS hard to stand up alone against a bully. Using agreed upon policy to set the tone and let it speak for and stand up for you is a great tool to help show a strong unified front. I’ve witnessed the cutting from the herd and manipulation of people to serve the agendas of the bullies.
I believe our board could benefit from self assessment. Instead of spending time on operational issues that management should be handling, I would like to see more time spent on board governance in boards’ strategic planning sessions. Build that foundation first.
Rebecca – I’m sorry you have experience with bullies in the boardroom. But I am glad that you’re speaking up and corroborating what I’m hearing. That’s why I felt the need to address this here. Together we’ll push back, right?
My issues are with BODs that have discussions away from the BOD official Team Meeting and have already discussed and come to the meeting with their ideas already agreed upon between themselves. For example, the Chairman already having a volunteer to serve on a committee that have not been discussed inside the BOD meeting. “He already volunteered for this committee” but we didn’t even know the old committee member had stepped down. Another problem is one board member on 90 percent of the committees.
I hear you Gloria! What you’re talking about are forms of bullying in my opinion. But they’re disguised as people “trying to help.” What you’re describing are things that are unacceptable for a board of equals who all have a vote. Part of my advice is to put things in writing, even in places where it looks like you shouldn’t have to. And demand communication! In your example, the bully knows that people don’t want to push back on something that’s a “done deal” for fear of looking rude. I say: make that chair go back and tell the candidate the news that they have to be vetted.