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Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown listens during the Progressive Governance Conference in London February 19, 2010. (TOBY MELVILLE)
Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown listens during the Progressive Governance Conference in London February 19, 2010. (TOBY MELVILLE)

Office rage

What to do when your boss is a bully Add to ...

He'd punch walls and angrily stab chairs with pens. Frequently, he'd yell at his staff, once pulling a secretary out of her chair for typing too slowly.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has a volcanic temper, according to a new book, The End of the Party, in which political journalist Andrew Rawnsley describes a series of tirades during Mr. Brown's second and third terms in office.

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The book was excerpted in Sunday's Observer, the same day Christine Pratt, the head of the National Bullying Helpline, revealed that Mr. Brown's staff had called her service .



In the Prime Minister's defence, Secretary of State for Business Peter Mandelson told the BBC that Mr. Brown is a leader who "gets angry, but chiefly with himself." Downing Street staff have described a leader who is simply passionate about his work.

The allegations have stirred experts in the growing workplace-bullying industry, and some say "passion" is the cop-out du jour for intimidating bosses.

"Passion can justify any over-the-top emotion. The message is that everyone else should learn to live with it. That's what it's like in a bullying environment: Everyone walks on egg shells, but all cater to the Grand Poobah," said Gary Namie, founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Dr. Namie, who works with WAVE, a human resources company that deals with workplace bullying, describes the behaviour as "health-harming mistreatment" and "psychological violence."

According to a 2007 study by the institute of 7,740 Americans, 37 per cent had been bullied at work, and 39 per cent of bully targets suffered clinical depression.

Bullies are often bosses: 72 per cent, the study said. Forty per cent of those are women who target other women; men appear to split their bullying evenly between the sexes.

It seems the man has a temper," said Gerard Seijts, professor of a leadership course at Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont.

Prof. Seijts said hotheads can get far in leadership because no one stands up to them.

"Often times, it requires a lot of courage for people around a leader to speak up. … But every time we don't correct people on their behaviour, we raise the bar for our moral outrage. If we treat this as acceptable, what becomes unacceptable? Maybe slowly, [Mr. Brown's]behaviour became unacceptable."

Valerie Cade, a Calgary-based workplace bullying expert and author of Bully Free at Work, said that unlike bullying, Mr. Brown's explosive tantrums may not be deliberate, but they are "unwanted."

She said bullied employees need to be able to name the behaviour as such, or else they end up viewing the scenarios as a sign of their own shortcomings.

"This is where people get stuck the most. Naming it as bullying lets you separate yourself from the situation. In the absence of doing that, you're powerless because you're trying to figure out what you could do differently."

Ms. Cade suggests employees confront their bosses in person, with direct language, then follow up via e-mail if the behaviour persists.

"In a corporate environment, now, you've made a record of that. Now you've got grounds to go to that boss's boss," Ms. Cade said.

But she added that most bosses deny the behaviour, and then minimize it with comments such as, "You don't know the pressure I'm under."



Dr. Namie noted that human resources staff can only go so far to resolve the conflict.

"Bullying is not an HR problem. It's an executive-team, administrative, leadership problem, and unless and until they want it to stop, it's not going to. HR hears all the complaints but they don't have the power to create a new policy and to enforce it."

Dr. Namie said the biggest mistake that bullying targets make is to let "the bully sink the claws in" the first time around.

"The bully is testing the water. The failure to confront that is what convinces the bully you're an easy mark. Unfortunately, what makes a target a target is they didn't see it coming. They're constantly surprised."

Asher Adelman said one way to avoid bosses with volcanic tempers is pre-emptively.

"It's very rare for a workplace to improve it's culture. Usually, when things go bad, they only get worse. For the most part, aggressive, abusive managers don't change their behaviour," said Mr. Adelman, founder of eBossWatch.com, which lets job seekers troll a database of anonymous posts about bad bosses.

The site has rated the top worst bosses for 2009, including a water distribution superintendent who held a four-hour, profanity-laced meeting and instructed employees to hit each other, a football head coach who broke another coach's jaw during training camp, and an airline CEO who screamed at his employees in front of hundreds of customers lined up at the airline's check-in counter, ignoring a sign that warned passengers: "Abusive behaviour towards staff will not be tolerated."

 

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