You don’t have to be a bully to succeed in business

Tim never liked the first cut of anything, and his displeasure took the form of tantrums: yelling, screaming, throwing phones against the wall, occasionally dragging in other producers to see what a miserable piece of dumb garbage I’d wasted his budget on. The only (very slight) compensation was knowing that he treated everyone this way.

Tim was a toxic boss. I’d been working in broadcasting for five years and I’d never seen behavior like this before. So I thought Tim was unusual. But he wasn’t – and he isn’t.

In the years since, I’ve heard countless tales of bosses who rant and rave, give their employees the silent treatment, ignore them, mock them, glare at them, insult and belittle them in front of others, spread false rumours about them, withhold the information they need to do their work – and take credit for everything they’ve done.

Employees working in these conditions often find their physical health, mental health and confidence so destroyed that they lack even the confidence to leave, and instead find themselves trapped in a world of psychological violence.

Frankly, I think Alan Sugar has a lot to answer for. Nowadays, I suspect a lot of this bullying behaviour is driven by the notion that this is how bosses ought to behave. Anyone tuning into The Apprentice or even Dragons’ Den will come away with the impression that the only way to succeed in business is by being nasty, bullying and loud.

Even the women have somehow been persuaded that the only way to be taken seriously is to be as obnoxious as the guys.

But the best businesses I’ve seen would never tolerate this kind of behaviour. Not out of any concern for political correctness but because it is so ineffective. Bullying either terrorises people (in which case they’re incapacitated from doing their best work) or it inspires contempt and a desire to leave at the earliest opportunity.

And the damage goes well beyond those in the firing line. I remember watching a chairman yelling at his senior executive and realising fast that this really wasn’t a company I wanted to be associated with. I wasn’t damaged, but the relationship was wrecked.

In England, where lawsuits against bullies have succeeded, it is estimated that workplace abuse costs the UK £25bn a year in lost productivity, illness and compensation.

But I think the damage goes beyond that number. Because the real cost incurred by the posturing of Sugar and his like is the response it provokes in young people. Why don’t they want to go into business and become entrepreneurs? Because it looks as though, to be successful, you have to become a monster.

Strength is associated with brutality, and talent seems to consist only of an ability to endure pain. The personality that would find this prospect appealing is exactly the kind of person we don’t want going into business!

And the very best business people I know don’t work like this. Not remotely. I can think of many but here are a few. Take Peter Chernin, president of News Corporation and CEO of the Fox group, running a big, intense global business for a difficult boss. He’s unfailingly polite, responsive and courteous.

Or Eileen Fisher, chief executive of her eponymous clothing company, who turned $350 into revenues of $250m. Quiet, reserved, contemplative. Her goal, she says, is to find what is best in her people and to enable it.

Another example is Mark McCormack, founder of the world’s largest sports agency, who always believed that the most important management skill was the ability to listen.

All three of these are powerful, successful innovators who made their impact without cruelty or noise.

In fact, it’s the opposite that is really powerful. I learned this the first time I encountered Richard Attenborough in a meeting. He spoke very, very quietly. The consequence was that everyone had to shut up just to hear. Everyone paid attention and no one missed a word.

What that taught me was that the role of a leader is to set the tone. If what you want is a screaming match then scream. But if you want meaningful progress, go quietly, pay attention and listen. Only little people need big sticks.

For more articles by Margaret Heffernan, click here.

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