Executive Bullying: What To Do If It Affects You

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Imagine the following job situation: Your manager ignores your emails, makes subtle jokes at your expense or gets loud when talking to you. Would you be ready to help her with a presentation now? If you indignantly deny that, that’s just theory: Many people would of course help their boss. Also then.

It has to happen often: In 2017, there was toxic leadership behavior in 85 percent of companies in German-speaking countries. Every fifth company even had an extremely toxic management climate, according to a study by several German universities based on data from the employer evaluation platform Kununu 2020. But what if the boss behavior does not immediately become apparent as toxic? What if we even described the relationship as good?

Bullying: The Problem of Feeling Guilty

Then verbal or emotional failures do something else with the individual: They create feelings of guilt. This is now shown by a leadership study by two Hamburg researchers at the Kühne Logistics University. Employees often react to these feelings of guilt after emotional or verbal abuse by their superiors by improving their performance.

Christian Tröster and Niels Van Quaquebeke, professors for leadership and behavior in organizations, proved this in a study. Bullying paradoxically leads superiors to the goal: good performance in a team. “This is especially true when employees rate the relationship with their manager as good,” says Christian Tröster.

Christian Tröster, scientist at the Kühne Logistics University.

Christian Tröster, scientist at the Kühne Logistics University.

KLU, Christin Schwarzer

The toxic relationship: a creeping process

According to the researchers, the danger is creeping in. Managers are often not aware of their abusive behavior. “A lot happens unintentionally,” says Christian Tröster. It doesn’t have to escalate straight away. First and foremost, managers try to want the best. Those who get along well with the manager often look to themselves for bad or abusive behavior on the boss’s side instead of actively addressing the situation.

“Guilt is a functional feeling,” says Van Quaquebeke. “If I feel guilty for something, so the thinking goes, I can fix it – and act. Actively doing something means energy. ”There are analogies to the behavior of victims of domestic violence: Here too, some victims tend to feel guilty, says Van Quaquebeke. “They try to react to violence with even better behavior.” In doing so, they did not notice that the fault was not theirs.

Boss behavior: compensation through performance? Better through a conversation

Managers often perceive: I work well, effectively and my team likes me. This creates a dangerous cycle. Bad behavior tears down. There are signs that can be understood as warning signals. But they have to be perceived in the work context.

Christian Tröster and Niels Van Quaquebeke say that as soon as the behavior of a supervisor degenerates in a dubious way, it is a warning signal. Sometimes the boundaries between harmless and toxic togetherness are fluid.

What can employees do, what can companies do? First of all, you should seek direct discussion with the manager. “It can have healing powers,” says Christian Tröster. “You can’t get out of a situation like this without talking,” confirms Van Quaquebeke. To prevent employees from being drawn into a spiral of bullying and feelings of guilt, they should define boundaries, recognize them and encourage dialogue, the researchers advise.

Van Quaquebeke knows this from personal experience. He reports on an ex-boss from a previous employment relationship that he previously knew privately. In private, both teased a lot of fun with each other. But when they suddenly worked together in a team, the teasing seemed inappropriate.

“It was suddenly strange that he was talking to me like that, for example in meetings, also because I didn’t know how to react or how to react in the context,” says the researcher. “Accordingly, I tried to address it according to the principle of ‘perception, effect, desire’. ‘I noticed that we carried our fun private teasing into work,’ I told him. ‘Due to the asymmetry of power, there is now a strange dynamic for me – I can’t answer correctly and I don’t know what it will do with the team atmosphere. That’s why I want us to stop doing that at work. ‘ The man listened in amazement and said, ‘You are right.’ And from then on it was no longer an issue. “

Niels van Quaquebeke, scientist at the Kühne Logistics University.

Niels van Quaquebeke, scientist at the Kühne Logistics University.

KLU, Christin Schwarzer

Promotions? “Only with respect in cooperation”

Employees have to define a limit for themselves that a manager should not cross, advises Tröster. “If this limit is exceeded, employees should talk to their supervisor about it right away. Because very often they don’t have an antenna for it. ”The exchange with colleagues could also be important.

Ideally, a manager can only progress up the career ladder if there is mutual respect, according to Van Quaquebeke. “Companies should not judge managers solely on the basis of the performance of the teams they lead, but also let employees evaluate the management style of their superiors directly.” Anonymous surveys in the company could also be an instrument to find out whether such problems exist and what the mood is.

Problem case bullying: absenteeism, health problems, legal problems

If the difficulties are neglected, the consequences can be considerable: employees often develop psychological problems with effects at work, at home and in the social environment. Companies then face absenteeism and possibly costly legal consequences. This makes it all the more important to be sensitive to what is happening in the work environment.

For their study, Tröster and Van Quaquebeke collected data from 200 participants as part of an online experiment. They also evaluated a diary study with 275 people who wrote an entry on their working life twice a day on ten working days. The state-recognized Kühne Logistics University – Scientific University for Logistics and Management (KLU) is a private university in Hamburg.


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