When leadership turns toxic: The fine line between being tough and being a bully
February 20, 2019
Shortly after Senator Amy Klobuchar announced her bid to become the next Democratic nominee for president, horror stories began popping up detailing years of consistent abusive treatment of her staff. The reports contended that her reputation made it difficult to recruit someone to manage her presidential campaign. In response, Klobuchar’s supporters argued that she was being targeted due to her gender and that a man in her position would be considered “tough” instead of toxic.
While it certainly is true that assertive women are much more likely to be viewed as bossy or unlikable than their male counterparts who engage in exactly the same behaviors, we can’t assume that just because someone is a woman, it means that her behaviors towards her staff are being wrongly characterized when charges of toxicity are made. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 30% of workplace bullies are women, and according to a recent study more than two-thirds of women have reported being a target of workplace bullying by a female boss.
So, how can you tell the difference between when your boss is being tough and when they’ve crossed the line into workplace bullying, regardless of the gender they identify with? Where is the line? Here are some differentiators to consider.
Tough bosses have bad days. Bullies are consistently bad.
According to Bartlett and Bartlett, workplace bullying is defined as “the experience of repeated and unwelcomed negative acts such as criticism and humiliation, occurring at a place of employment, that are intended to cause fear, distress, and harm to the target from one or more individuals in any source of power over the target, where the target has difficulties defending him or herself.”
There’s a lot to break down in that definition, but a keyword to consider is repeated. Workplace bullying is rarely a one-off experience. Rather, it is the experience of a combination of harmful behaviors over time. Those behaviors may have to do with work, such as constantly being expected to meet unreasonable deadlines, maintaining an unmanageable workload, having information withheld that impacts performance, and being pressured not to take advantage of benefits to which you’re entitled, such as vacation days or reimbursements for expenses. The behaviors may be personal attacks, such as being regularly humiliated or ridiculed, having gossip and rumors spread, being purposefully ignored or excluded from the group, or being the target of excessive teasing or sarcasm. And the behaviors could be more severe, such as being shouted as the target of spontaneous anger, or experiencing behaviors with the specific intention of intimidation. Though the range of behaviors that you might experience as a target of workplace bullying might seem confusingly broad, the thing that brings the experience together is that the toxic behaviors occur consistently over an extended period of time.
A tough boss can have a bad day. They can be stressed out, have an outburst in a meeting, forget to give you something you need to do your job, snap at you when you’re trying to explain why you’re not getting the results they want, make an unreasonable request that requires you to work long hours or make an off-handed remark that might not have been their finest hour in retrospect. It crosses the line into bullying when these behaviors become standard operating procedure – when they occur every day rather than once in a while.
Tough bosses drive you to produce your best work. Bullies rule through fear.
A former aide to ex-Senator Al Franken recalled an incident in which Klobuchar sent a young staffer to explain the Senator’s lateness, reportedly saying, “I’m supposed to tell you Senator Klobuchar is late today because I am bad at my job.” Who benefits from forcing an employee to make a statement like this? Does this teach the employee a harsh lesson that will prompt them to be better next time, or will it make them feel like nothing they do will ever be good enough? The motivation behind the action matters.
There’s nothing wrong with a boss expecting high-quality work from their team members. In fact, it’s often being held accountable to a high expectation that will drive employees to go the extra mile, and perhaps even surpassing what they thought was possible to achieve. But one can be held accountable to great expectations without being humiliated, ostracized, being made the butt of a cruel joke, or verbally abused. Part of what defines a workplace bully is that the target has difficulty defending themselves from consistent psychological attacks. If the expectation is that you must keep your mouth shut and take whatever your boss gives you unquestioningly without standing up and defending yourself, particularly if it reaches the point where you dread coming into work each day, then you might be working for a bully.
Tough bosses are strategic. Bullies are irrational.
Tough bosses are tough because they are focused on achieving results, with the performance of the team taking priority over how people feel. But that doesn’t always translate into negative behaviors – a tough boss will go to bat for their team when it means the difference between success or failure, will roll up their sleeves when they need to dig in and get their hands dirty, and will even play the role of the cheerleader when they think it will push the team across the finish line. Their actions are strategic and they get results.
On the other hand, bullies care about power more than anything else. Sometimes that might go hand-in-hand with driving towards results, and other times their efforts will be directly counterproductive to achieving the goal. For instance, they may force their targets to work on trivial tasks rather than to focus on the core responsibilities of their job or pile on the work to a level that would be unachievable for even the most skilled employee. And they disrupt the cohesion of the team by specifically pitting some employees against others based on who their favorites are, and who they’re targeting.
Tough bosses are tough on everyone. Bullies have specific targets and play favorites.
When you work for a tough boss, they don’t just have high standards for you – they have high standards for everyone, regardless of their rank, experience, tenure or title. There are no favorites and there are no targets. That means that everyone is on the same level. It may not be the easiest environment to work in, but you know you’re not alone.
Bullies are different – they don’t target everyone with their difficult behaviors. Bullying is a power play, and they tend to target employees who are more vulnerable and are less likely to retaliate or confront the problem. But that doesn’t mean their targets are underperformers. In fact, they can be very strong performers who may intimidate their boss, presenting a threat to their power. That’s why there is a special focus on keeping them in their place.
Of course, that means that there are some employees who will have a completely different experience with the bully in question – they may even love working for them because they don’t experience the same bullying behaviors! If you find a range of experiences with the boss in question, that can mean they’ve crossed the line from tough to toxicity.
What should you do if you work for a bully?
When workplace bullying is reported, less than 20% of employers will provide help to the target, leaving them to fend for themselves. That means that if you find yourself working for a bully rather than a tough boss, your best bet is to find greener pastures. Go somewhere that you will be valued and appreciated.
Not for nothing, but that’s exactly what Klobuchar’s staff has done. Between 2001 and 2016, she boasted the highest turnover rate in the Senate at 36% a year. Of course, we can’t know for sure if she’s tough or if she’s toxic because only those close to her have witnessed what’s occurring. But if the existing reporting is accurate, she’s walking a fine line at best.
Like what you’ve read? You’ll love my book, Zen Your Work: Create your ideal work experience through mindful self-mastery. You can also find more over at Zen Workplace.
By Karlyn Borysenko