How to manage high-performing bullies

Would you want to work with a boss who bullies and harasses you?

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Bullies exist everywhere. They exist amongst the neighbourhood gang of children, amongst students and faculty at renowned universities or prestigious schools, they make team mates miserable at local sports club, and make the environment toxic even in a corporate setup.

These bullies thrive because stronger personalities tend to suppress the weaker ones. What happens when a high-performing employee turns out to be a bully?

All HR leaders with whom HRKatha spoke agree that bullying at workplaces is quite common. It is a trait widely seen in the high performers of organisations. Many believe that high performers are rather demanding and tend to be rude while interacting with others.

A study conducted in India in the year 2020, showed that almost 55 per cent of employees in India are subject to bullying. HR leaders have agreed that most of the time the immediate boss is responsible for the existence of such a culture in the organisation.

“It is not strategically a good move to fire high performers for their bullying. After all, they are the ones who are delivering results. The organisation needs such people to keep the show going. It is just that they fail to tick a few boxes in terms of attitude”

Praveen Purohit, deputy CHRO, Vedanta Resources

Ashish Anand, former CHRO, SAR Group agrees that “bullying is quite common in the corporate world and bullies exist among employees in every organisation”.

How can high-performing bullies be handled / managed?

The performance quality and the manner of delivery of results by such performers take them to a certain level in the organisation. These performers may be team leaders or even belong to the middle management.

Although they do have a proven track record in terms of performance, they often tend to lack in terms of attitude and behavioural skills, which truly make them leaders.

Looking at the philosophy of it all, while describing a high performer, Rajeev Singh, CHRO, Solara Active Pharma, says “For most organisations, ‘high performers’ are the ones who deliver numbers or add value. Very few employers look at the attitude and behavioural aspects of such employees”. In his opinion, “a true high performer is the one, who exemplifies great behavioural skills apart from just performing at work”.

It is because organisations turn a blind eye to the behavioural aspects of high performers that organisations end up allowing high-performing bullies to thrive.

Anand admits instances of such rude high performers coming to light and being dealt with by the HR and the management.

Of course, at first, an attempt is made to mentor them and coach them to be more compassionate. They are given a chance to improve their attitude and behaviour. However, if such mentoring and coaching interventions do not work, other ways may have to be resorted to.

Anand recalls how during one of his past stints, a business head had to be counselled for being rude and aggressive.

“For most organisations, ‘high performers’ are the ones who deliver numbers or add value. Very few employers look at the attitude and behavioural aspects of such employees”

Rajeev Singh, CHRO, Solara Active Pharma

Money was invested to train this business head, and while it did show positive results for a few months, he did not take much time to revert to his old ways and use of abusive language.

“It looked like he had merely tried to fake it. And seeing no improvement, the management did make him realise that he may not be a fit for the culture. He, therefore,resigned on his own,” recounts Anand.

What really happens with such high-performing bullies?

As per HR leaders, identifying high-performing bullies in an organisation is not difficult. “The organisational processes are so robust these days that such behaviours cannot escape being noticed by the management,” points out Anand.

Human resource experts believe that such leaders who behave rudely with employees, do not reach top-level positions.

“Often, people with such attitude problems miss out on getting the apex position or group-level roles in a company because they are automatically weeded out during a 360-degree review check,” shares Praveen Purohit, deputy CHRO, Vedanta Resources.

Such leaders either stagnate at a certain level or automatically leave the organisation when they realise that they are not getting their due. “The success of such people is quite short term and they fail to make it to the top,” asserts Singh.

Is it a good idea to let high-performing bullies stay on in the organisation?

Bullies can hamper the culture of the company, but, as per Purohit, it is not strategically a good move to fire high performers for their bullying. “After all, they are the ones who are delivering results. The organisation needs such people to keep the show going”.

Purohit chooses to focus on the positives. “It is not as if they have committed a crime by behaving so,” he points out. “It is not as if their behaviour reflects lack of integrity in any way. It is just that they fail to tick a few boxes in terms of attitude,” says Purohit rightly.

“Even the CEO and board members are under pressure. They need people who give results and in 90 per cent cases, such high-performing bullies manage to get away with it,” Singh admits.

“The organisational processes are so robust these days that such behaviours cannot escape being noticed by the management”

Ashish Anand, former CHRO, SAR Group

What about the risk to the culture of the company?

Purohit says that giving feedback to such bully leaders in the organisation is important. “One will have to tell these people what is wrong with them, otherwise the culture is at risk,” Purohit says.

On the other hand, Singh also points out that firing such rude leaders depends on the talent periodic table of the company. If the company has a first, second and third in line to succeed that bully leader, without compromising on the kind of value the individual was adding, then the organisation can afford to fire such a bully.

The adverse impact of bullying does not need to be explained. High attrition and major exodus will always remain a problem for the company. Attracting talent will always remain a challenge for such companies. Not just that, employees who are subject to bullying at the workplace, face mental-health issues as well.

A major edtech firm in India has been accused by many former employees of having an abusive culture. In this company, managers are known to hurl abuses at their teammates if sale targets are not met. Many people who have worked there, decided to move out to escape the unfriendly environment where employees were not treated with respect. Not surprisingly, the company does not have a very good reputation as an employer and is forced to lure talent with huge packages and attractive perks.

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