In 2004 Robert Sutton wrote about the corporate bully in the Harvard Business Review which does give me the license to write on this subject in a serious essay. The gist of that exploration was the avoidable correlation between brilliance and obnoxiousness, strains of the latter negating virtues of the former. Today’s views are about the alarming proliferation of such species in the corporate environment and how they systematically damage the mental health of society.
Quite obviously, the context is the suicide of the actor Sushant Singh Rajput and how the exclusionists are being rapidly called out. In corporate India though, the issue is not nepotism but a host of other factors that lead to employee dismay. One of them is the Old Boys Club, be it the IIT-IIM nexus or regional biases, which are still alarmingly prevalent. Yet another is the English-speaking clique, although vanquished in advertising. But the most damaging tendency of all is the entitlement of nastiness that position still seems to bring and how being insulting, rude and personally derogatory become the prerogative of leadership. This is a generational vice and having seen bosses behave like animals brings out the replication effect in successors.
It is important, however, to note the distinction between being demanding and dismissive, the decibels of interaction not a relevant detail. I know some first-class human beings who were living terrors at workplaces from a performance dimension but ensured that the bridge to personal insult was never quite crossed. Equally I have noted some saccharine specimens who dishevelled the worth of their team where it hurt most, without a single iota of constructive feedback in the working year. Although truthfully, the former is the more dominating of the two and a love for scathing public humiliation is a supreme stock in trade.
In the advertising agency I worked for the longest, there was one such character, a suitable disciple of a legendary tyrant. His camaraderie with bosses and non-team peers was amazing while to his reporting unit, the Gestapo would have been a milder parent. Possibly he needed counselling assistance personally, much before sending his entire team for rehab. What I also found strange was how the bigger bosses of the day seemed to actually indulge this aberration, as if an unschooled pinch hitter in an outfit of technically sound batsmen. This particular character drove his team to resignation several times, salvaged on most occasions by the larger employer umbrella. Like him, I know of several other bullies who thrive to this very day, undeterred by the civility of the changing times.
A corporate legend who I otherwise deeply respect once dismissed a subordinate for not wishing him in the elevator, as part of an imposing ensemble of intimidatory tactics. When asked later in a peer group, he replied thoughtfully that this was the only way to rule in India as natives did not respond to empathy. Now this may be partially true in a different era which also explains why the armed forces with its ruthless discipline do not have a significant attrition rate. However sentiments as such are timed out in the world we live in, where sensitivity is as important as accountability and the twain does meet. Over time I have realised that being nasty is the self-defence mechanism of the deeply insecure and the professionally insufficient, a demonstration of designation aimed to enforce and subjugate.
So, where does this story lead to in the current age? Truthfully, there can be no room for the bully in modern corporations as she is inconsistent with current thinking. Most certainly we live in a performance-oriented world but there is a major difference between expectation enforcement and chronic chastisement, the latter is what we are violently opposed to. Every day in sectors that cannot be segmented, millions of Indians are facing a mental health crisis due to the attitudes of their bosses, who themselves are prime candidates for therapy and replacement. For those who have arrived this is a tool of survival as they subscribe to the age-old treatise that being human is a sign of weakness, while in truth it is the most powerful illustration of strength.
Apart from companies themselves being relentless about this pattern, there is a role that influencer brands can play. I would love to see LinkedIn or its many clones come out with the Annual Bully Index, where employees identify the humans who are truthfully sub-human, in fact these brands should build awareness campaigns around this problem. Just as mindfulness is taught to kindergarten kids, adults should be taught sensitivity in business schools as a bridge towards empathetic performance cultures, the warmth as non-negotiable as the numbers. HR professionals must become advocates of this change, instead of simply pedalling online training programmes and sit-and-draw competitions. Modern professionals have in-built empathy so I am less worried but we must ensure that the start-up culture does not succumb to this problematic streak.
I have been deeply fortunate to have not worked with too many bullies in organised tenures, although I was probably one myself at a point in time. For sure, dealing with such folks causes immense damage to mental health and can drive even the brightest to dire outcomes, from job change to life extinction. This piece I must end with a humble plea to every reader — please do not be a bully yourself and if you spot one in the vicinity do name and shame. It will be good karma and there will be many to fund the guillotine.
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