No bullies in the office

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By Tony Samson

BULLYING BEHAVIOR in the workplace is now a legitimate management issue. No longer is the head-biting superior the role model for an effective boss. (I don’t get ulcers. I give them out.) Such boorish behavior is considered dysfunctional and likely to erode an organization’s credibility and bottom line. An exodus of talent, arising from a corporate culture of bullying, is a red mark on a company as an employer of choice.

Business books on bullying behavior, like Nasty Bosses (How to Deal with Them without Stooping to Their Level) by Jay Carter, 2004 advocate a self-help plan for confronting corporate bullies, not by getting angry (or depressed) but by getting even. A more recent book, Skin in the Game (February 2018) by Nassim Taleb promotes the silver rule: “do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you.”

Surveys on how employees feel about their company should include a “civility index.” What is relevant for corporations should apply to other organizations as well, yes, including high schools and the proper decorum in the washroom.

Questions on the civility survey serve to focus on uncivil behavior in the organization. Does your boss routinely belittle your achievements? (So what if you exceeded your budget. You always set it too low anyway.)

One can tell a company’s civility index by observing the traits of its top executives who are clones of the CEO. Seldom does a mild-mannered and civil CEO surround himself with those who snarl at waiters who take too long to take orders or routinely jump the line for the elevator. The behavior of the CEO or owner influences the corporate culture on dealing with fellow executives and subordinates.

As for an organization of peers, like a management association or a volunteer group of fund-raisers, there is really no CEO to emulate. In such a group, every member considers himself a CEO. Here, there can be bullies too. They are either avoided or put in their place — Sir, you have a celadon-colored snot dangling from your left nostril.

In the eminent magazine, Economist, there was a discourse on the erosion of courtesy in the world. The unnamed writer surmised that it was the spread of English with its casual approach, devoid of honorifics and deference, that led to a brusque way of communicating. While Spanish, for instance, differentiates between a superior or stranger (usted) versus the intimate and familiar (tu), English only uses “you” to level the playing field. Thankfully, in Filipino, usage of the respectful “po” for elders persists. It can be argued too that the honorific “kuya” or “ate” for drivers and waitresses is a linguistic attempt at civility.

The Internet, with its open format, has also narrowed the courtesy moat, allowing many to post even intimate details of their lives along with personal opinions on ideas and persons to a mass audience — he’s really full of hot air. The chat culture has dispensed with reticence. When everyone feels he can slap you on the back like a pal, he has the license to be rude — oh, you are such a leech when it comes to a free meal. (Put a laughing emoji here.)

The erosion of civility in language finds full flower in bullying and “showing who’s the boss.” The organizational hierarchy formalizes a superior-subordinate relationship where the one on top can throw away circuitous speech and get straight to the point, with no thought wasted on the possibility of hurt feelings. (Let me get straight to the point.)

Empathy is the ability to understand and consider how another person feels in a shared situation. This expression of “fellow feeling” is the basis of courtesy. The concern for another person’s sensitivities eliminates a brusque approach.

Even an otherwise joyful message on a promotion or salary increase can be curtly delivered — here’s the additional 12% for you, so stop whining already. By the same token, hard news like a doctor’s diagnosis of a dreaded disease can be softened by compassion. Sometimes, even false hopes (we’ll see if this approach will work) can allow a person to process and accept an earth-shattering turn of events.

Civility is an acknowledgement of another person’s worth. Delivering a message like serving a meal is all the more appreciated when given with grace and yes, love.


A.R. Samson is chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.