|Fear in the Kitchen: Bully Chefs|
|Fear in the Kitchen: Bully Chefs|
Everyone in the kitchen instantly froze in fearful anticipation of what was to come next. The usual bustle and hum of busy workspaces merging in a symphony of activity became silent. The incident: a burnt tray of chicken breasts, meant for a catered dinner. The result: an over reactive chef deciding to throw the food on the floor, kick a stack of empty boxes and scream at a poorly prep cook who forgot the chicken in the oven.
Many of us have seen this happen before and have stories we share with each other about the brutality we have survived at the hands of bully chefs. Every working adult has known one - a boss who loves making subordinates squirm, whose moods radiate through the workspace, sending workers scurrying for cover, whose very voice causes stomach muscles to clench and pulses to quicken. It is not long before dissatisfaction spreads, rivalries simmer. Normally self-confident professionals can dissolve into quivering bundles of neuroses. What is found is that some of the behaviors that we think most that protect us are what in fact allow the behavior to continue. Workers become desensitized, tacitly complicit and don't always act rationally.
Bullying bosses differ in significant ways from the Blutos of childhood. In the schoolyard, particularly among elementary school boys, bullies tend to pick on smaller or weaker children, often to assert control in an uncertain social environment in which they feel vulnerable. But adult bullies in positions of power are already dominant, and they are just as likely to pick on a strong subordinate as a weak one and women and are at least as likely as men to be the aggressors, and they are more likely to be targets. In leadership positions that require the exercise of sheer violent will - on the football field or the battlefield - this approach can be successful: Consider Vince Lombardi and George Patton. But in an office or on a factory floor, different rules apply, and bullying usually has more to do with the boss's desires than with the employees' needs.
A manager might use bullying to swat down a threatening subordinate, for example, or a manager might be looking for a scapegoat to carry the department, or the supervisor's, frustrations. But most often managers bullied subordinates for the sheer pleasure of exercising power. It is a kind of low-grade sadism that is the most common reason. They start on one person and then move on to someone else.
The mystifying thing about this pattern is that it does not appear to undercut productivity. Workers may loathe a bullying boss and hate going to work each morning, but they still perform. Researchers find little relationship between people's attitudes toward their jobs and their productivity, as measured by the output and even the quality of their work. Even in the most hostile work environment, conscientious people keep doing the work they are paid for. At the same time, some employees withhold the unpaid extras that help an organization, like being courteous to customers, helping co-workers with problems or speaking well of the company. Yet this falloff in helpfulness and, indirectly, in performance is smaller than might be expected, because fear motivates different people differently.
It is found that in situations where bosses were abusive, some employees did little or nothing extra, while others did a lot, partly covering for less helpful peers. It is speculated that one reason people keep doing extra in these abusive situations is to advance themselves at the expense of others. It makes them look good and the others look that much worse. So tyrants spread misery, and from the outside it looks as if they are doing a fine job. It does not help matters that people who enjoy abusing power frequently also revere it and are quick to offer that reverence to the even-more-powerful. Bullying bosses are often experts at "managing up." Ambition, experts say, is the bully's most insidious deputy.
Subordinates know viscerally the high cost of going around a boss, even if it is simply to file a complaint with the human resources department. You are trouble. You are a whiner. You have called out the manager behind his back. One reason we do not know how effective it is to take on a cruel boss directly is because so few employees do it.
For many people, run-ins with a supervisor stirs up old conflicts with parents, siblings or other larger-than-life figures from childhood. Nasty bosses often elicited from subordinates defensive habits that they first developed as children, like reflexive submission and explosive rage. Once these defensive positions lock in, it's like people are transported to a different reality and can no longer see what's actually happening to them and cannot adapt.
Subordinate status itself causes people to defer to a supervisor's judgment, especially in well-defined hierarchies. It's the boss's job to make decisions, after all, and co-workers may think there is some legitimate hidden reason for the boss's behavior. Selfishly, too, workers who witness a boss humiliating a colleague are relieved that the sword has fallen elsewhere and are secretly pleased that they look more competent by comparison. Staff members are delighted to receive praise from a boss, but even more delighted when the praise is accompanied by news that another colleague is struggling.
This occupational schadenfreude is evident when employees observe a co-worker being bullied. After watching in silence, they then begin to resolve their guilt. They do this by wondering whether maybe the person deserved the treatment, that he or she has been annoying, or lazy, they did something to earn it. The brutal behavior goes unchallenged, and the target feels a sudden chill of isolation that is all too real. By doing nothing even people who abhor the bullying, become complicit in the behavior and find themselves supplying reasons to justify it.
The most common form of resistance to a cruel manager remains the old-fashioned grousing session. Sharing the misery over lunch or a drink can makes everyone feel a little better and signal the first step in jointly responding to the abuse. Informal comiserating sessions may evolve into effective resistance when workers are united, well connected with others in the organization and trust the company's higher-ups to hear their case.
More often, though, grousing simply feeds on itself, sometimes devolving into elaborate self-contained gatherings in which the central activity is bad-mouthing and mimicking the boss. Employees in tight-knit informal groups may ironically be less likely to think about confronting their bosses. Instead, they may retreat to their informal groups to let off steam. It is those who are not part of a tight group, who feel truly desperate and in danger of losing their jobs, who appear most likely to speak up. Most others learn to perform an elaborate dance, trying to preserve their status while being careful not to forfeit their sense of decency, all the while looking for an escape hatch.One of the best strategies to manage a bully is to watch for patterns in the tyrant's behavior. Maybe he is bad on Mondays, maybe a little better on Fridays. Maybe she is kinder before lunch than after. If the Broncos lost the day before, it is not a good day to ask for anything. If some types of assignments spook the person more than others, avoid them, if possible. When the nostrils quiver and the lip tighten all is not lost. Ignore the insulting tone of a boss's attack and respond only to the substance of the complaint. If it is a deadline problem, address that. For an attack on a particular skill, discuss ways to improve.