bully-free-zoneMinorities suffer the impact whilst the solutions to exit the patronising epidemic is everyone’s responsibility
By Karen Bertoli

Subtle and blatant bullying is not the most “feel good” topic to analyse in an already tumultuous global business environment. However, there is no skirting the issue (no pun intended); and bullying in the Board Room is infectious often creating its own version of Chinese whispers with subtle connotations and falsities undermining relationships, communication and Board effectiveness..

Let’s first define common bullying behaviours

Interrupting, ignoring, speaking above others, forming silos, patronising responses, not taking a challenge seriously, not listening nor taking advice, assuming an incorrect level of knowledge, undermining competencies, gender, age or ethnicity ability framing (asking the female director to make the tea or take the minutes) … and so I could continue. Consciously or sub consciously, thereby neglecting the duty of governance as a Director responsible to shareholders and stakeholders.

The common or blatant bully has aggressive, blocking, imposing or negative body mannerisms, bad or loud language, excessive technical word usage, pigeon holes individuals and treats others as inferior.

The more dangerous, subtle and, often invisible to others, a style of bullying includes primarily patronising engagement, pigeon holing, framing and other engagement faux pas listed above.

It is important to understand who is the target of bullying

Women and “other minorities” which here may be defined as not the majority in the group of the Board based on gender, ethnicity, religion, age, location, school, education, competencies, professional training, experiences, direct subject knowledge, EQ or IQ focus and role titles …. and so I could continue!!

Bullying is not limited to recipients being women, often any minority group which includes minorities for example that have different skills sets and experience. I have witnessed a vast variety of bullying behaviour including man on man, to the extreme of a CEO bullying a Chairman, GFD bullying a CEO and a Chairman bullying a SID, just to identify a few.

There is no doubt that humans by nature generally gravitate towards those who are similar as it’s the most comfortable. We must remember that the purpose of a Board is to offer independent guidance and governance to a Chief Executive and management.

In contrast, best practice, because of corporate experiences, evidences that a diversity of perspective, challenge and input provides for a more robust conversation, which will lead to the right decisions.

Neutralisation of ancient mindsets

Communication, listening and being made aware of such behaviour patterns is crucial. It is not easy to see this fully without an external evaluator explaining how the interplays are impacting the Board’s effectiveness. Good governance is a powerful support as is process and structure; these are leading guides to help prevent and address bullying in the Boardroom.

It is also the responsibility of the bullied to work out, in that environment, how to address the issue for the greater improvement in the Board’s effectiveness. This is not a single conversation, this is a time and people game that requires good communication, trust, applied EQ (social awareness), persistence and third party help internally, and for full benefit, external input, handled appropriately.

If business and Boards do not address these ineffective contributors, the subtle (most often) and less subtle bullying behaviours will continue to challenge minorities and Board effectiveness. Governance, leadership, structure and culture will support discussions existing in the right forum, minuted, actions defined and accountabilities set.

Time to change?

With the rise in understanding the value of diversities and given we operate in a more open worldwide community, bullies in the Boardroom should find themselves losing steam as Board effectiveness is a genuine focus.

Chairmen, you can often be unwitting culprits, but it is your call to lead on “we embrace diversity and we have a safe culture for all to contribute”. This tone from the top will underpin an effective Board.

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