Lessons from Lothian: Bullying in the Workplace

NHS Lothian is rife with a culture where bullying of staff is the norm, according to a recent report. Most right-thinking people would deplore such a management style. But is it always the case that bullying in the workplace is inappropriate?

To some, that question may seem shocking. But we should ask it to help understand how such a culture can take hold in an organisation. Because although there are some corporate sociopaths out there, in order for bullying to become so widespread, there will be others who would be horrified to think of themselves as bullies, but who must nonetheless acquiesce in a bullying culture.

Some of them will simply be too scared to speak out. But there will be others who put a premium on getting the job done, and though they might not actively condone bullying, see it as a necessary evil in a tough world. Others may think that what some would perceive as bullying is just how over-sensitive souls see the sort of robust, decisive management style that is necessary for the efficient running of businesses or public services.  

It is certainly true that successful management in any organisation sometimes requires tough, even ruthless decisions – including, sometimes, the requirement to sack people. However, there is a world of difference between having the ability to take tough decisions and thinking that bullying is the correct way to treat people.

It’s easy to see why a management style that relies on bullying would be ineffective in theory. People who are happy in their work, be they shelf stackers or hedge fund managers, perform better, other things being equal, than unhappy ones.

A culture that tolerates or encourages bullying also encourages people to conceal mistakes. They do so in the interests of self-preservation, and to avoid a rollicking.  That means problems in an organisation on don’t get addressed early. And you don’t need to be a management guru to realize that it’s better to fix a problem sooner, rather than later when it’s had time to fester, or to understand that the first thing you need to do to fix a problem is to admit that the problem exists.

A bullying culture also discourages staff in an organisation from using their initiative, or questioning the established way of doing things: why raise your head above the parapet if it’s likely to get knocked off? That leads to a ‘tick box’ mentality, poor customer service, and a lack of innovation. That’s not generally regarded as a recipe for success in any organisation.

That’s the theory, but what about the practice?

The ex-banker formerly known as Sir Fred is alleged to have indulged in ritual humiliation of staff, his daily meetings with his direct reports reputedly being referred to as the ‘daily beatings’. It’s hard to see his management style being held up as an exemplar of good practice, given what happened to RBS under his leadership,

It should be sufficient to say that bullying as a management technique is morally wrong, full stop. It shouldn’t be tolerated or excused, any more than racist or sexist abuse can be dismissed as ‘a bit of banter’. But just in case you don’t share that view, the practical argument against it is that it’s not merely ineffective, but actually counter-productive. It’s not the sign of a strong manager, but of an inadequate one.

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