How Bullies and Barbarians Can Ruin Your Workplace Culture

A friend and I were sharing “speaker war stories” recently, prompted by his jaw-dropping experience earlier that week.

Here’s what happened…

Just as my friend was about to start his presentation, an audience member took a call on his cell phone. He didn’t just take the call, though.

He vamped for the audience, saying in a loud voice at the end of the call “No I will NOT have sex with you.” When he hung up, he looked at my friend on stage and announced: “That was your wife.”

No response to rude employee behavior

By the way, this was a 50-something “professional.”

Several of this man’s co-workers came up to my friend afterwards and apologized for their colleague’s rude behavior. Disturbingly, the owner of the business did not; nor did he indicate he was going to address it later with that employee.

Apparently, he didn’t think it was a problem.

Apparently he hadn’t thought about how this display of crassness might be a clue as to how this man was behaving as an employee, and how that behavior might be affecting the owner’s business and its reputation.

As my friend noted, this man’s crass behavior was undoubtedly not an isolated event, because, as the old saying goes: “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

Furthermore, if this man felt comfortable acting this way in an unfamiliar setting, how do you think he acts when he’s in familiar territory?

What bad behavior says about those who do it

How does his boorishness and incivility show up in his interactions with his employer’s clients, and therefore, his employer’s bottom line?

How does his incivility and boorish behavior affect his co-workers and their ability to work as a team?

While my experience couldn’t match my friend’s for social inappropriateness, it was equally disturbing for what it said about the perpetrators.

After recovering from the shock of what my friend had shared, I told him about my recent experience speaking at a leadership conference where I conducted back to back sessions. In both sessions, about one-third of the 150 or so participants continued to talk despite my saying multiple times “OK … let’s get started”…”All right… .let’s begin.”

In over 25 years of speaking at conferences, I had never encountered such bad manners from the very outset.

Their behavior wasn’t disturbing simply because it was frustrating at the time. What was far more disturbing to me was what it said about them and how they probably were like in their workplaces.

Dealing with an unruly mob – at a conference

Here’s what I mean…

My first session was the first concurrent session of the conference. Usually that’s when people are most likely to be on good behavior because they are in an unfamiliar environment. Yet, despite this, one-third of the group acted like an unruly mob.

Even more troubling though was the behavior of the second group. This group consisted of about half the people who had attended my morning program on mindfulness in the workplace and the importance of being aware of how you affect people.

Yes, that’s right — they had just attended a program on mindfulness and being aware of how you affect others.

The other half had attended the other concurrent session, which was on respect in the workplace.

Yes, respect in the workplace.

Despite all of this priming to be respectful and mindful of how we affect others, one-third acted like barbarians.

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The impact on customers and co-workers

Again, since “How we do anything is how we do everything”, if they acted that way in this context and after all this priming, how must their cluelessness show up at work when they are feeling comfortable with their familiar surroundings?

How does their boorish, self-centered mode of being affect their co-workers and customers? How does their incivility affect the culture and the emotional climate where they work?

And especially given that these were managers, how did they treat people with less power? If they were comfortable being disrespectful in a setting where they were not in charge, what must they be like when they ARE in charge?

I share the above stories to set the stage for asking you this question about where you work:

Is your culture dominated by the uncivil few, by the bullies, by the barbarians, by energy vampires…by the lowest common denominator way of being and relating?”

 What price do you pay when bullies, barbarians rule?

If your culture is being ruled by bullies and barbarians, here are some of the ways it is costing your organization:

  • People are less willing to speak freely in meetings, resulting in new ideas and potential pitfalls not being discussed
  • People who try to excel, innovate, and make things better are subjected to sarcastic digs and put downs — e.g. the Tall Poppy Syndrome — resulting in a gradual decline in quality, professionalism, and the ability to retain talent
  • Changes and initiatives always met with resistance and negativity, resulting in slower executions with more frustration for managers
  • Employees are unlikely to challenge poor internal customer service (“It’s just not worth the hassle talking to Joe”), resulting in inefficiencies and diminished external customer service.
  • Diminished morale.
  • Talented people leave.

“You can’t tolerate corporate bullies”

When I asked Greg Taylor, co-founder of Toronto-based Steam Whistle Brewery, how they created such a great culture, he said he’s learned that you cannot have a great culture if you tolerate “corporate bullies.” Through experience, he found the downward pull of the bullies will silence all but the most strong-willed and assertive “bearers of positivity.” The rest quickly learn it’s not worth speaking up if it means being psychologically beat up by an emotional thug.

Years ago I remember a famous visionary CEO saying at a conference that one of the best things his company ever did to boost morale was to fire a number of employees. After getting the audience’s attention with that remark, he went on to share how they realized that a small percentage of the workforce was chronically unhappy and spreading negativity. Nothing the company did seemed to make them happy.

Leadership finally decided to have courageous conversations with these people. They basically said:

It seems like you’re not happy here, no matter what we’ve tried to do. Maybe it’s best for all concerned if you work somewhere else that meets your needs in a way that we clearly have not been able to.”

Because they had the courage to have the conversation, they reaped the benefit of no longer having the emotional downward pull of continual negativity, cynicism, and bullying behavior.

“The best thing that ever happened to us”

Frequently while conducting leadership training, I’ll have people ask “What should I do about Joe?” where Joe is a total black hole of negativity and emotional toxicity. After we talk about the powerful impact one toxic person can have on a team or department, we discuss the moral and fiduciary responsibility a manager has to address it.

When we start to talk about options, usually one or more participants share their experience of confronting a toxic individual.

When the person’s manager finally had the courage to confront the individual and “free up the bully’s future,” everything changed. That person’s department—and even the whole company if it was a small business—felt like a totally different workplace. It had a totally different vibe. There was no longer negativity and mean-spiritedness polluting the emotional climate. People were happier and more productive.

Their only regret?

“I wish we had addressed this a whole lot sooner.

So now what?

  1. Share this article with your colleagues.
  2. Use it to catalyze a discussion about whether you are allowing bullies and barbarians to pollute your workplace.
  3. Discuss what you are willing to do to address this.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," and Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker, volume one of the Courageous Conversations at Work series, as well over 100 articles and book chapters.

You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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