Bullies in the Board Room

By Kathleen Quinn Votaw

Do bullies bully their way onto boards? It’s hard to believe that anyone would willingly allow them to take leadership roles in an organization. But just like on the playground, there they are, inserting themselves around the conference table decades later. The difference is that bullies on a board have the power to take an organization down.

Over the years, I’ve served on a number of corporate and nonprofit boards. One particular experience stands out, beginning with the day a new chair took over leadership of a board—and this person was a bully. I had served on the board for several years and, along with many others, helped the organization grow successfully, exceeding expectations year over year. We were an effective team.

The new chair barked at people; humiliated them; and shut them down, along with their creativity. After watching how the chair’s attitude and actions were affecting both the spirit and productivity of the board, not to mention the feelings of individuals, I had to speak up. I told the chair to stop acting like a bully and let people be heard. Others chimed in that they were concerned about the perceptions the chair was creating and the possible reputational harm that could result for the organization.

The bully felt attacked and resigned. But before leaving, this individual couldn’t help retaliating for the criticism, taking actions that caused me to resign and many others, essential to the organization’s success, to pull their support. The very survival of this growing organization was put in jeopardy by the abuses of a single, but powerful, bully.

Fascinated by the destructive power of bullying in the board room, in researching the concept, I found that there is actually a Workplace Bullying Institute. WBI is led by Gary Namie, PhD., who provides critical and relevant insights on the issue. He says that bullying:

  • Is four times more common than either sexual harassment or racial discrimination on the job.
  • Is not yet illegal, and a hostile workplace environment is seldom actionable.
  • Can cause social, emotional/psychological, and economic harm as well as physical illness.
  • Can mean costly litigation, lower retention levels of valuable employees, and a tarnished reputation in addition to the harm caused to individuals.
  • Cannot thrive without “executive sponsorship.”

And why do we continue to allow bullies to thrive at all levels, including our boards? According to Dr. Namie, it’s because:

  • We’re a competitive society that accepts a level of aggression.
  • We accept or excuse “a few bad apples,” especially smart or creative ones.
  • Bullies are often in positions of power or protected by someone in power, making us afraid of confrontation or retaliation.
  • We excuse bullying as simply “personality differences.”

Bullying is not leadership in any sense of the word. Even the military has abandoned the practice in its training. So, what should you do when you’re sitting in a board room and you witness someone being threatened, intimidated, humiliated, or sabotaged (and maybe that someone is you)? Stand up to the bully—don’t let this person get away with it!

But the first step, always, is this: No matter how impressive the credentials, what feats they promise to achieve, or how hard they push to become a director, never let a bully on your board.

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