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How to undermine an organization

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If you take the time to observe small organizations you will see lots of interesting behavior.  Organizations ripe for interesting behavior include non-profits like church groups, clubs, home owner’s associations, condo boards and all the rest where people form groups of common interest or purpose.

Domination and control.  Why?

Why is it that someone always wants to dominate and control things?  By “dominate and control” I don’t mean the sort of personality like Apple CEO Steve Jobs.  Or, the domination and control of a turnaround CEO that a Board of Directors brings in to transform a company.

Of course, if you want to continually renew an organization to take advantage of emerging external opportunity and internal strengths then, like Steve Jobs, you need to exercise some measure of control.  In the case of a turnaround CEO, that person – with blessing of the Board of Directors –  needs the authority and control to change the corporate strategy and the operating model.  Changing the operating model of an organization to align with strategy can result in a radical transformation of people and processes including layoffs and new hires best fit for the new organizational structure.

The differentiator  – Goals and measurable results vs a culture of fiefdoms and “Because I said so”

Sure, Steve Jobs comes in and upsets the Apple cart of Macintosh computer users (and the organization) by introducing the iPhone and dropping “Computer” from the corporate name and brand identity.  Apple Computer becomes just “Apple”.  What does this signal to employees inside Apple – especially those working on Macintosh computer products?

And the turnaround CEO that shakes things up?  The focus is on making a company fit to compete in the marketplace from a position of unhealth.  When Jack Welch came in as CEO of GE he divested the company of hundreds of businesses and thousands of people.

What I have in mind is what happens to some smaller organizations.  Those organizations that are not key players in corporate america but are key players in some people’s lives.  Organizations like church groups, home owners associations, condo boards, clubs, and the like.  Any small group for that matter – even a goup of friends.

Organizational Bullying

These small organizations are an excellent opportunity for someone to see an opening for this “domination and control” behavior typified by a “Because I said so” rationale for decisions.  The opportunity is generally a small group of people who can be manipulated plus the lack of any real measures of the organizations success.  Given this combination, these folks who want to dominate and control have a fertile playground. 

Since no one is keeping score any organizational performance is acceptable.  The organization can degenerate into one or more fiefdoms.  Unfortunately, in many cases, the protection of these fiefdoms can replace and supersedes any of the stated goals of the organization – if they exist.  People work not to advance the organization but to protect and perpetuate their fiefdom as a medieval feudal lord.

Sometimes this behavior goes under the name of “Organizational Bullying”.

Here’s a clip from the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University

…one of the surest ways for an organization to fail is to tolerate workplace bullying. Bullies not only stifle productivity and innovation throughout the organization, they most often target an organization’s best employees, because it is precisely those employees who are the most threatening to bullies. As a result, enterprises are robbed of their most important asset in today’s competitive economic environment – precious human capital.

The problem with workplace bullying is that many bullies are hard to identify because they operate surreptitiously under the guise of being civil and cooperative.

The purpose of this article is to review current research on workplace bullying, to help organizations learn how to identify bullies, and to suggest ways that an organization can eliminate this workplace toxin.

How to Identify Bullying Behavior

Recent commentators have used different ways to describe bullying behavior, but they agree that a bully is only interested in maintaining his or her power and control.[2] Because bullies are cowards and are driven by deep-seated insecurities and fears of inadequacy, they intentionally wage a covert war against an organization’s best employees – those who are highly-skilled, intelligent, creative, ethical, able to work well with others, and independent (who refuse to be subservient or controlled by others).[3] Bullies can act alone or in groups.[4] Bullying behavior can exist at any level of an organization. Bullies can be superiors, subordinates, co-workers and colleagues.[5]

Bullying is not about being “tough” or insisting on high standards.[7] It is “abusive disrespect.”[8] In Dr. Hornstein’s view bullies fall into 3 types:

Conquerors Only interested in power and control and protecting their turf.
They try to make others feel less powerful.
Can act DIRECTLY (e.g. insulting and/or rude words or gestures, [or tones] or INDIRECTLY ( e.g. orchestrating battles and watching others disembowel each other).
Performers Suffer from low self-esteem so belittle targeted persons (can be obvious or subtle put-downs).
Manipulators Interested only in themselves.
Easily threatened and vindictive.
Experts at lying, deceiving and betraying.
Take credit for the work of others.
Never take responsibility for their own “errors.”

You can read the rest of the article in the link below including some suggesting on how to mitigate and guard against these folks.

The Take

I have seen a few organizations of like-minded individuals try to start a group or club.  There seems to be a high preponderance of those folks who see this as a misguided opportunity for them to step in.  The first thing they want to do is to make all the rules.  They want to dominate and control.  If you look into the background of some of these folks you will find that they are individuals who have had a less than successful career.  Or, that they have never had any sort of management responsibility.   They see this new group as an opportunity to “get ahead” with a title or position which they could never achieve in their workplace.

Perhaps many of these people just transfer how they were treated in the workplace to this new opportunity.  That is, they are task-level individual contributors who have little discretion in what they do.  Sometimes these folks were micro-managed.  These folks may have never been entrusted with any organizational management or leadership responsibility.  And so they find an opportunity with a weak group of people where they can treat other people exactly how they were treated.  

They mistakenly understand management as “command and control” and not empowerment and enablement to achieve the organizations goals.  In short, they think… I will treat you like I have been treated.  They are simply “passing it on” as Wally might do as suggested in the cartoon at the top of this posting.  This could be called: the revenge of the powerless.  What other models of management does Wally have other than being bullied?  So, “pay it forward”.  “My turn”.

There may be a link between organizational bullies and Sociopathy (see link below – The Sociopath Next Door)

A potential solution

That these bullies are allowed to exist in any organization can be tracked to poor leadership.  Sometimes leaders lack the courage to remove these bullies placing their own emotional distress at dong this over the ultimate goals of the organization and responsibility to the organizations stakeholders. 

If leaders can not act then this empowers the bullies behavior even more.  They know they can get away with it and so they do more of it.  They leverage an asymmetric relationship where they can inflict emotional distress on the leader  to the point of disarming them while having no conscience themselves on what they are doing to other people or the organization as a whole.

If the bully is the leader trying  to start a new organization then they will soon find the new organization evaporate before their eyes.  No one wants to be treated with “abusive disrespect”.  Maybe they will then try elsewhere with a weaker group of people.

One solution to organizational bullies is for the manager or leader to set measurable organizational goals for the bully and hold them accountable.  These goals should only be achievable as a team effort.  If they can’t achieve these goals then there is easy justification for removing them from the organization.  If they do succeed then perhaps they will develop a more productive working relationship with others mitigating their desire to protect turf, build fiefdoms, withhold information, disempower people, and other characteristics mentioned in the Pepperdine article that undermines the performance of organizations.

Bullies are everywhere undermining organizations every day.  Now that you know what to look for – what do you see?  And, what will you do?


Are Workplace Bullies Sabotaging Your Ability to Compete?  (cached copy)

The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us

The danger of a bully in Consensus-based decision-making
The C-word: Consensus

Overcoming the Fiefdom Syndrome


Written by frrl

July 23, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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