Having told you about three different instances about difficult relationships I had with bosses, I’m now going to look at a couple of different examples. Firstly I’ll look at a time the manager responded appropriately, and secondly I’ll look at the time I was the trustee and acting as a manager.
I mentioned in my last post that I worked for a manager (I’ll call her Rebecca, it will make the storytelling easier) who gave me some complex work at very short notice, and in at least one instance it was work she was supposed to have done. Now, maybe I had some paranoia about being bullied based on previous experience, but something didn’t feel quite right about this. I felt I was being set up to fail, but couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong.
In addition, I had enrolled on a PGCE course to teach post 16s. So I was working four days a week, at college one day a week, and somewhere in between I had to do 75 hours teaching practice each year for two years. It was hard work, harder than working full time with a young baby or studying full time for a degree while looking after my small son, probably the hardest thing, work wise, that I’ve ever done. Four months from the end of my two year course, work gave me an ultimatum. They wanted me to go full time and show my commitment to the organisation. The manager delivering this message was my manager’s manager (I’ll call her Jeanette), so I initially thought she was the bad guy. The choice then – give up the teacher training four months from qualifying, the hardest thing I’ve ever done, something I really wanted to achieve, or give up the job, which I no longer loved. Even though I had no job to go to, I decided the job had to go. I couldn’t quit the course so close to the end.
I handed in my resignation. The director of the development department, three levels up of boss, (I’ll call him David) spoke to me about it, and in the course of our discussion, I told him I wouldn’t be bullied into giving up my course. He immediately noticed the word, and said that if that was the case, he would have to investigate, and did I want that? Not in a threatening, ‘You don’t want that, do you?’ way, but in a sincere, concerned, ‘That’s not right and I can’t let that just pass’ way. He gave me time to consider it.
As I said, it was a strange situation, in that I felt Rebecca had set me up, I’d never had any problems with Jeanette until this, and I also felt that Rebecca had set Jeanette up to do this. But as Jeanette was delivering the message, and was the more senior manager, and I had absolutely no evidence against Rebecca, I decided not to pursue a complaint. If I’d been staying, maybe I’d have acted differently, at least being more on my guard in my interactions with Rebecca. But at the time, I still thought it might be paranoia on my part, and said that maybe I’d overreacted. I genuinely still don’t know about Rebecca, one way or the other. But my advice, even if it’s just a niggling doubt about someone’s motives, is keep a record of the times you’re unhappy about.
My overriding recollection of David though, is of a sensitive leader, willing to listen and act upon problems, even the most difficult ones, genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of staff as well as the operational requirements of the organisation.
The second story concerns the time the shoe was on the other foot, and I was in the leadership role as a charity trustee. An ‘us and them’ situation developed, and we (I) never managed to overcome this and get to the point where we were all working as one towards the same aim. Again, it would be very easy to lay the blame at someone else’s door. There were several difficult relationships here, but I’m just going to focus on one, let’s say her name was Karen.
Initially, I got on well with Karen, but things became increasingly difficult between us. Our work styles were very different – Karen was efficient, and liked advance notice, clear instructions and boundaries, I was in a difficult situation where I didn’t always know the answers, couldn’t always give her the clear instructions, and I’m a last minute kind of woman. As chair of trustees, I should not really have been involved in operational management, but without an office manager, CEO or other manager in the office, had no alternative but to take on that role. Neither of us was afraid to speak up and say what we thought, but sometimes both of us did this inappropriately. I once lost my temper with her, in front of other staff; I felt provoked, but should not have reacted that way.
As our working relationship deteriorated, it got to a point where I always had to get another trustee to act as go between and convey information between Karen and me, which brought its own issues after I found out that at least one other trustee had been leaking confidential emails to the staff. In meetings, Karen would not engage in discussion with me, would avoid eye contact and address all her remarks to others. She would disagree with me constantly. I remember during one meeting, I had received an offer of help from a management consultant, put this to the other trustees and staff, and Karen said we didn’t need his help, should keep it in house. Another trustee backed her up. Next time, when training for new trustees was mentioned, but we couldn’t afford it, I offered to deliver some training. I am a trainer after all, and had been a trustee for about three years by now, and had been on governance training at my own expense. On this occasion, Karen’s view was that we shouldn’t keep it in house, we needed external training. Whether this was because it was me suggesting it or me delivering it or both, I don’t know, but I couldn’t help but smile at the contradiction.
I don’t want to beat myself up too much because of this failed relationship, because I was under a lot of other pressures at the time too. I didn’t get a great deal of support from the other trustees until the last nine months of my term, and the problems were numerous. However, I didn’t understand that the employees were afraid that they would lose their jobs because of the financial instability, or that they didn’t have faith in us as trustees that we could do what was necessary to save the organisation and their jobs.
In hindsight though, I now think that much of Karen’s behaviour towards me could be classed as bullying. I didn’t think of it as such at the time, but constant hostility, either ignoring me, disagreeing with me, no eye contact at meetings, even though I was chairing, excluding me from conversations, refusing to accept apologies or discuss what had happened with a view to resolving… sounds a lot like bullying. I am aware that I have to examine my own behaviour too, and I’m not sure if I can claim to be innocent of behaviour others might think of as bullying. I hope not, and it is difficult for me to be precise now. It’s more than twelve months later and I’m no longer in communication with Karen, though we did reconcile before I left.
I guess the moral of the second story is that often, a target of bullying doesn’t recognise it as such whilst it is going on. And it’s not just managers with formal authority who can bully, staff can bully managers too. So if you think something like this is going on for you, what can you do? Don’t be like me and let it go on for too long, take some action. I’m not going to pretend that taking action is easy though. Some resources that I’ve found really useful that could help you through this, firstly there is the classic by Andrea Adams, which first raised the issue of bullying at work back in the early 90s, still a useful read for targets of bullying. More recently, Aryanne Oade has written with some practical strategies, including how to deal with bullying staff. And if it’s academic research you’re interested in, I can recommend Workplace Bullying by Rayner, Hoel and Cooper; a good insight, although the research is out of date now. Full details of books below.
The other thing, though, is that these two examples confirm my view that the culture is the responsibility of the organisation. David reacted immediately to the suggestion of bullying, indicating it was not acceptable. At the charity, we did not have that culture of supportive relationships where we were all working towards the same aim, and the ‘us and them’ culture allowed unhelpful relationships to fester.
I’d love to hear your views – have you had to deal with similar situations?
Andrea Adams. Bullying. How to confront and overcome it, Virago
Aryanne Oade. 2015. Free Yourself from Workplace Bullying, Mint Hall Publishing
Charlotte Rayner, Helge Hoel and Cary L Cooper. 2002. Workplace Bullying. What we know, who is to blame, and what can we do? Taylor and Francis
Lindsay is the owner of Silvern Training. Before that she had a very varied working life, doing everything from admin, volunteering, sales, teaching, training, fundraising, management and chairing a board of charity trustees. Now wants to change the world of work by improving workplace cultures so that people can look forward to Monday mornings. Also likes to support individuals to speak up, be better listeners and to take action.