Are you an office tyrant?

Managers can turn into bullies without even realizing it. A new book points out the signs.

(Photo: New Line Cinema/Everett Collection)

I’m here from downtown,” Alec Baldwin says between bursts of profanity, “and I’m here on a mission of mercy.” In his legendary scene in the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, as a slick named Blake sent by head office to berate a sad-sack sales team, Baldwin defines the boss-as-bully, jabbing his finger and swearing, promising a perverse incentive for the monthly sales contest. First prize is a Cadillac. “Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

You might not manage your workplace like Blake, but we can act the bully in ways more subtle than a barrage of cuss words. Some bosses might emulate executives like Jack Welch—whose infamous policy of regularly firing the lowest-performing decile of his workforce had workers scrambling—but others might not even realize they’re doing it. And make no mistake, it’s the folks in charge that do the tyrannizing. According to the most recent data from the Workplace Bullying Institute, based in Bellingham, Wash., 72% of those who demonstrate bullying behaviour in U.S. workplaces are bosses, a number that’s approximated across the U.K., Australia and Canada. And it’s not just inconsiderate—it can also be illegal; Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan treat workplace bullying as a potential health hazard. So how can you tell if you’re a tormentor?

For one thing, you shouldn’t expect somebody to call you on it. “Who wants to confront their bully? You’re back in the playground,” says Jan Chappel, a senior technical specialist with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. You’ll likely have to figure it out for yourself, and, she says, “recognition is the biggest part.” The CCOHS publishes guidelines on workplace bullying, and Chappel says the most common signs of a bullied workforce are an office riven with gossip, innuendoes and backbiting, and high levels of absenteeism and turnover.

Dr. Gary Namie, president of workplace-bullying consulting firm Work Doctor and co-author of the new book The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Snakes, Weasels, and Snakes from Killing Your Organization, says there are three workplace trends that should make you wonder whether you’re terrorizing your staff.“No. 1: every meeting you run is perfectly smooth and dissent-free,” Namie says. “Well, that should be virtually impossible.”

Namie agrees that turnover—a disproportionate number of people leaving your office or unit, and few people wanting to come in from elsewhere in the company—is another sure sign that something’s amiss. “The transfer out is often dismissed as, well, they’re just a bunch of bad seeds, anyway, they were unmotivated—stuff like that.”

A third sign to watch for is social isolation, beyond even the natural barriers that rank creates. You don’t get included in conversations about movies, trends, family life—the world outside work. “No one talks to you about anything because no one feels safe,” Namie says. “When you part the waves every time you walk in the room, it’s hard not to believe you’re Moses. But that’s isolation—everyone stays away from you for a reason. And if you think it’s normal, well, you’re probably a bully.”

If these tells make you think you’ve grown into the role of workplace bad guy inadvertently—that is, you weren’t born a jerk, and you don’t want to die one—all is not lost. Namie recommends a two-part approach to mending your ways.

The first thing is counselling. “It’s not that you’re a psychopath,” Namie says. “You don’t have to be.” But if you’re responding to conflict in a negative way, or feeling threatened by a peer or subordinate, or letting life pressures from outside the job leach into the workplace, counselling in the short term can offer some insight into why you’re acting the way you are.

But the longer-term approach is to find what Namie calls “strategic tactical help.” Most workplace bullies are sponsored. Managers who bully their workers have most likely been encouraged, explicitly or implicitly, to manage the way they do. Even if a CEO isn’t telling his managers to go out and kick some more ass, says Namie, they can breed bad habits in their managers by treating with indifference reports of a manager’s bullying behaviour.

The best form that tactical help can take is a new mentor. If you’re a would-be recovering bully, Namie recommends identifying another manager or executive, inside your company or out, who’s held in high regard but who has a managerial style totally different from yours. Engage them, ask them for feedback about your style and look to them for cues as to how you can manage differently. Because, says Namie, “bullying is not an HR issue. It’s a leadership challenge.” Just not the kind where steak knives are the prize.