If you created a word cloud from the last couple of years’ UK media output, it’s a fair bet that the first four terms in my headline would be pretty prominent, alongside phrases like ‘social media’, ‘populism’ and ‘imminent global catastrophe.’
I’d be amazed if the phrase ‘Boss Bully’ got in there at all, primarily because I’ve only just made it up. At least, I think I have – please don’t sue me if I subliminally picked it up from somewhere else.
It’s the best term I could come up with to describe a person whose default setting is to dominate or ‘boss’ pretty much any situation, someone who mainly sees other people as ‘the competition’, who always sets out to win for themselves or for their gang, group or country, and who is good at getting their own way.
In politics and business, they’re the ambitious go-getters, the deal makers, the narcissists, the people who are often most at home on the golf course or squash court.
A meeting or negotiation with a boss bully is likely to be uncomfortable for anyone except another boss bully, because it’s always a competition.
Boss bullying doesn’t rely on conventional intelligence or a good grasp of detail; indeed, these can be hindrances, as they can lead the boss bully into the dangerous world of nuance, introducing doubt and thus weakening their position. A successful boss bully mainly needs complete confidence in their position plus the street smarts to stay ahead of the other guy.
Boss bullies tend to annoy the heck out of over-educated, over-thinking liberals like me, partly because we see many of their actions as unreasonable. Faced with criticism, they are keen on wheeling out that well-worn quote from George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Man and Superman.’
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
It’s pretty much accepted that we need boss bullies in order to make things happen, so we tend to tolerate their less attractive behaviours. “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly” is a back-handed compliment, and a thinly veiled warning to anyone who has to deal with them.
I say ‘he’, incidentally, because I’ve found the boss bully more often tends to be male. There is a growing number of female boss bullies, but at risk of making sweeping a generalisation, I’ve found that fewer women adopt boss bullying behaviours, certainly in business.
Boss bullies have always existed, so why should I be thinking about them now, and bracketing them with populism, Brexit, Boris Johnson and Trump (ok maybe those last two are obvious).
Boss bullies come to the fore in times of extremes, and that’s where we are now. I believe the current political landscape, in the USA and Europe at least, is creating an environment where boss bullies flourish.
In politics, boss bullies prosper where enough people feel disaffected, and where this dissatisfaction can be channelled and targeted at elements which they see as ‘the enemy’.
Add the Millennial generation’s sense of entitlement (again, a boss bully default setting), the ability of subversive forces to light fires of discontent, and the power of social media to fan those fires, and we see a world of black and white where the boss bully can easily be king. Certainly I believe it was these forces which nudged Trump and Brexit over the line to their narrow victories.
And it’s not just in politics that the boss bully is in the ascendant. The fallout from the Trump and Brexit, along with technology and other disruptive forces, is creating shock waves in the business environment.
Many businesses are facing trading conditions which challenge to their survival, and at times like this concerned boards and shareholders tend to look for boss bullies to come to the rescue.
In politics, ‘the enemy’ can be other countries, immigrants, particular social groupings, trades unions; any entity or group which people feel or can be persuaded is the root cause of all their problems.
Similarly, in business, ‘the enemy’ can be existing working practices, suppliers, the workforce, management or trade unions; anything on which a boss bully can get leverage to achieve their aims and persuade the board and shareholders they’ve got the strong change leader they need.
If the boss bully is really in the ascendant, should we be concerned, and if so what can we do about it?
We can just accept that they are necessary for the times and let them get on with it, but I think we should at least recognise what kinds of fallout their actions can create so we are better placed to manage it. I’ve identified three major areas that I think are worth considering.
- Unintended Consequences
As a rule, boss bullies don’t do nuance or ambiguity because it impacts their single-minded focus on the goal.
If a boss bully sets out to reduce net migration, they can’t start worrying about the contribution which immigrants make to the economy, or they might never get round to reducing their numbers. If they are there to reduce a company’s unit costs, they can’t start thinking about the hidden value which some of that cost may be generating.
In business, when we hear of a boss bully being brought in to turn a company around, they are usually focused on the concrete KPIs like cost, revenue or market share rather than the more complex fundamentals like value, brand or employee engagement.
This is partly because boss bullies don’t like tackling less tangible, more complex goals. These require an inclusive, thoughtful approach which doesn’t sit well with a boss bully’s natural style of exerting their will on others rather than working as a team.
As a result, a boss bully’s single-mindedness means that they may achieve their goals but at the cost of creating unintended consequences somewhere else.
The human cost of the Windrush scandal and (much less important) the resulting PR disaster, the various recent IT meltdowns following widespread outsourcing to reduce costs, the trashing of brand value and customer confidence caused by single-minded focus on the cost base; all of these are examples of unintended consequences from boss bully behaviours.
This isn’t necessarily a problem for the boss bully, who has generally has the street smarts either to move on before the brown stuff hits the fan, or to get someone else to take the blame. It is, however, a problem for everyone who has to deal with the fallout.
One way to pre-empt this is to balance out the boss bully with someone who is specifically focussed on protecting against unintended consequences. This is tricky, as it’s tough to find someone who can fight as hard and effectively for the intangibles as the boss bully is fighting for their targets, and in business it’s usually the boss bully’s targets that have board and shareholder support.
I know of at least one company with a tough, cost cutting CEO which brought in a new Director of Customer from another sector, presumably at great expense, to protect the customer proposition. Needless to say, cost-cutting won and it didn’t end well, either for the new Director or their customers.
It would take a brave Board to redress this balance, say by having a collaborative, holistic thinking CEO chair with a boss bully rottweiler COO, but that might be more effective overall. The CEO might have their work cut out to maintain their authority. Having someone on your team who is more of a boss bully than you can be as much fun as parenting a bolshy teenager – witness Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
- The Curse of the Paper Tiger
Mention of Boris Johnson leads me on to another pitfall associated with the boss bully. As we see more boss bullies rising meteorically through the ranks in politics and business, riding the waves of fast track schemes and media attention, the Paper Tiger is becoming more common.
These are the boss bullies who don’t have quite enough in their locker to see it through. Their personal ambition, charisma, focus and political acumen can get them a long way up the greasy pole, but they don’t have quite enough boss bully to cope when stuff comes back to bite them.
Boris Johnson looked shell shocked immediately after the Brexit vote was announced, as did some of the Trump entourage on election night, though, tellingly, not the President elect himself. I believe this is because a boss bully requires a superabundance of the two B’s – brass neck and bullsh*t.
Trump showed the confidence of a boss bully with enough of both to spare, whilst Boris clearly looked like someone who has just run out of both and is looking, panic stricken, at the full horror of what they’ve done.
Boris’s comment that Trump would make a good Brexit negotiator was unsurprising given this context.
Amber Rudd’s meteoric rise and fall is another example. Backed into a corner on the Windrush affair, she told a bald and unsupportable lie.
This is not necessarily an unrecoverable position for a boss bully, but she didn’t have either the support or sufficient supplies of the two B’s to carry it off.
A boss bully’s fall causes collateral damage. If you have a boss bully on your team, whether it’s in politics or business, you need to manage that risk.
You can surround the boss bully with wise counsellors to head off any potentially fatal gaffes, but this requires a level of co-operation from the boss bully which may be hard to maintain.
You can have a contingency plan in place in case they fall – it’s good to have someone lined up to replace them when they do crash, preferably someone who is skilled at pouring oil on troubled waters.
Or you can create a PR environment which allows them to keep getting away with it. I haven’t a clue exactly how you do this, but it seems to be working, at least for now, for Theresa May with Boris Johnson, and it certainly works for Donald Trump.
- The Revenge of the Omelette
“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, the proverb which boss bullies traditionally roll out to justify riding roughshod over anything or anyone which gets in their way.
The trouble when you are a boss bully is that the ‘eggs’ are generally people, and people tend to bear inconvenient grudges when they’ve been used in your omelette.
If you tackle migration by building walls, if you deal with a troublesome workforce by breaking the unions, if you trash customer loyalty as a by-product of increasing shareholder value, you risk creating forces which can come back and bite you later.
The cynical, cliched boss bully response to this is to make sure you’ve moved on before (to mix my poultry-based metaphors) the chickens come home to roost.
The unfashionable wishy washy liberal way is to understand the root causes of the issue, engage with all groups involved and look to create a sustainable solution. This is unlikely to happen if there’s a boss bully in the picture, but if possible it’s worth at least doing some targeted risk assessment and mitigation in the areas most likely to cause problems later.
There’s already a wealth of material out there on boss bullies and narcissists in business and politics, from much more scholarly and qualified minds than mine. This blog just scratches the surface, but I think it’s timely in our increasingly self-centred and entitlement driven society, where political and economic forces and the power of social media are creating an environment where boss bullies can thrive and, in my opinion, cause great harm to the greater good.