My Manager is bullying's not my fault

News on 12 June 2019

“My manager is bullying’s not my fault”

What should an organisation do when one of its managers is accused of being a bully by other employees?
What if it has happened more than once with the same manager?
No smoke without fire, right? 

The background

Debbie is a very conscientious manager. She wants to make sure that the team is performing well, because she cares about the organisation and the services it provides to vulnerable members of society.

The small charity where she works are having to cope with shrinking budgets. Three months ago the charity lost some significant funding. Debbie knew that meant they had to be more efficient or else they would have to make some cuts from their overheads. She knew that she had to improve the performance of the individuals in order to ensure the overall performance of the organisation. 

Debbie met with each of her team members individually to give them feedback on their performance. She also told them what she expected to see going forward. The targets were SMART and clearly set out for the employees.

After a month, Debbie reviewed the whole team's performance. 

Some members of the team were underperforming.

Debbie decided to put three members of the team onto a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Alan, Ben, and Holly all had a PIP and were to receive extra guidance, supervision and training to help them to reach the targets they needed to achieve.

Alan and Holly weren’t very pleased with being put on a PIP. In fact, they were downright outraged and disgusted.

Ben, on the other hand, took the feedback on the chin and decided that he would do his best to make sure he exceeded Debbie’s expectations. 

Alan and Holly put in grievances against Debbie, saying that she was bullying them. 

They claimed that she was overly critical of their performance, that other people had gotten away with the same things they were being pulled up for, and they were being spoken to in an inappropriate manner.
It is not the first time a grievance has been raised against Debbie with an allegation of bullying. The organisation had investigated a previous allegation, but found there was no disciplinary case to answer and that actually the issue was Debbie’s management style. Debbie had some coaching training and some development to get her to improve her communication skills. 

The new grievances

The Trustees were concerned about the fresh allegations.  Did more allegations mean that the weight of evidence against Debbie would prove that she was, in fact, a bully after all?

The grievances had to be taken seriously. Both Alan and Holly gave statements to us during the investigations. We also spoke with Debbie and we interviewed lots of potential witnesses, viewed CCTV footage and even listened to a 2-hour audio recording that had been surreptitiously recorded on a mobile phone (without Debbie’s knowledge by Holly during a supervision meeting). 

So, after all of that, was Debbie a bully?

Actually, that was not the outcome. 

Most people just don’t like criticism.

Alan had worked for the organisation a long time. He didn’t like change. He wanted to be able to do what he’d been doing previously and didn’t like being asked to carry out tasks in a different way.

Holly’s performance was poor. She was failing to complete paperwork. She felt personally insulted to be told that her work was not up to scratch. 

Holly and Alan clearly did not understand that the purpose of the PIP was not to undermine, but to assist them to improve. Debbie was encouraged to work on improving her communication skills. 

Encourage a coaching culture

Where conversations are more of a coaching style conversation, than a ‘command and control’ style of leadership there is less room for there to be a perception of bullying. 

As a manager, take the time to communicate why things need to change in an organisation. That way you can get your team on side to all pull together. This might also help to prevent individuals feeling persecuted and threated by change and threatened by attempts to assist them to improve. 

Recommended reading

If you'd like to learn a bit more about the coaching style and ways to talk to your employees about difficult topics, have a look at Radical Candor