Staff feedback made bully boss eat humble pie. Some executives need a lesson in leadership — and the truth about their performance may be just the job.
PSYCHOLOGIST Ros Taylor remembers the time a bullying retail-sector executive dissolved into tears when she heard her colleagues’ devastating verdicts on her performance at a career-counselling session.
“She was your typical sharp-suited, aggressive, bullying boss,” recalls Taylor, one of the presenters of the BBC2 series Confidence Lab. “She thought nothing of using her superior intelligence and wit against her employees. Her modus operandi was public humiliation.
“There was a pervasive culture of fear in the com- pany’s head office, and her executive team cascaded that stress down through the whole organisation.”
At one memorable board meeting, the woman leant over to a subordinate as he finished a presentation, and declared loudly: “That is probably the single most f****** stupid idea I have ever heard in my life.”
Yet when confronted with her colleagues’ opinion of her, the woman was aghast.
“I did a 360-degree assessment on her,” said Taylor, who coaches business leaders and managers. “That’s one of the tools I use to get through to bullying executives — they are assessed by their immediate team, employees and superiors, on an anonymous basis.”
Whereas this particular woman used words such as feisty, successful and in-your-face to describe her professional attributes, she was horrified to find she was seen as bullying and aggressive, and that most of her employees feared for their jobs on a daily basis.
“People walked round that office looking haggard,” said Taylor, author of The Complete Mind Makeover, published recently. “There was no chat in the top office, just this ominous silence and a dreadful atmosphere.
“When I confronted her with her assessment, she was absolutely gobsmacked and distraught. She cried and cried. It turned out that all her bosses had treated her like that, and she had always had aggressive role models. She had in turn become a little mandarin, surrounded by terrified yes men.”
Working with Taylor once a month, the executive has now improved her ability to motivate and communicate with staff. Unfortunately, it was too late to help the senior lawyer who became so enraged with a junior that he threw his briefcase through a plate-glass window — he left to join a rival firm, to the jubilation of his team.
Taylor now wants to share her experience, gained from years of working with senior public and private-sector executives, to help professional people at all levels of their careers.
“The public sector can be particularly tricky,” said Taylor, who has worked with senior-level NHS executives, council staff and civil servants.
“The old-fashioned job-for-life mentality can be tremendously difficult. I’ve come across too many people in the public sector who are always late for work, bored stiff, and really shouldn’t be doing their jobs. They should be moved out, but instead they are simply passed on to someone else’s team until they become a problem there — and then they’re shuffled on again.”
Taylor has found that managers are often high-functioning individuals who are promoted up the career ladder from the original specialisms in which they excelled — in law or business, perhaps — without acquiring the leadership skills that are needed to organise and motivate a team.
“In my work within the NHS, I’ve coached some inspirational people who are great lawyers or doctors — good professionals, but they’re not necessarily going to be great leaders without being given the entirely new skill set they need,” she said.
“Bullies don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘How can I be utterly obnoxious today?’ They are bosses under stress and they need support and new skills to perform better.”
Taylor has now developed a model that can be used by senior professionals when dealing with their colleagues. “It is a four-point action plan that gives managers the tools to implement performance monitoring and early intervention with staff,” she said.
“The most important thing to understand is that, in general, people don’t want to do things wrong, they want to get it right. Sometimes they need help, and that’s where a good leader and manager comes in — and those skills can be learnt.”