Why the boss shouldn't be a bully

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I grew up working in my grandmother's diner but it wasn't until I stepped into my first job as a server in a fine dining restaurant that I felt the wrath of an angry chef whose primary method of management was yelling. I'll never forget innocently walking up to the line and reaching for a plate of just-sauced, steaming pasta that had landed in front of me. My order was ready. Or, so I thought. "What the hell are you doing?" His words froze me. "What are you, an idiot?? It's not ready until I say it's ready."

Unleashing a torrent of expletive-laced insults humiliated me but what really angered me was realizing that no one around me even batted an eyelash.

It was the first, but not the last time that that I was surrounded by screaming, berating, and bullying at work. Kitchens are notorious for bad behavior but that kind of treatment didn't stop there in my career. When I was just out of school as an entry-level manager, I realized that not only my boss but much of the culture of management was driven by this steadfast belief that in order to "learn your lesson" you needed to be "called out."

Niki Leondakis, CEO of Hotels & Resorts, Two Roads Hospitality
Source: Two Roads Hospitality
Niki Leondakis, CEO of Hotels & Resorts, Two Roads Hospitality

Management didn't think this kind of behavior was bad. In fact, it was widely thought to help others learn from your mistakes. Described as "a significant emotional event," this intentional tactic was used to create an example out of a peer in meetings through public ridicule, the threatening of job security, shaming, and masking it as a justified learning experience for employees. I knew then in my heart that this wasn't the way to teach people, much less motivate them to be better at their job. I vowed then to take a different approach.

What I have now come to learn is that bullying in the workplace is far more prevalent than most of us realize and it's one of the least talked about reasons employees become disengaged. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, an estimated 54 million Americans have been bullied at some point in their career and 72 percent of the people bullying are bosses.

Why does the system fail to protect the bullied? The lack of awareness and absence of anti-bullying policies are partly to blame, but victims who complain are often retaliated against.

The emotional and psychological impact bullying has on the well-being of our workforce cannot be underestimated. In a survey on The Toll of Workplace Bullying on Employee Health, 49 percent of people reported being diagnosed with clinical depression and 71 percent reported having been treated by a doctor for work-related health symptoms such as high blood pressure, heart palpitations, anxiety attacks, sleep disruption, loss of concentration, migraines, and more.

Additionally, these negative effects are felt by observers of bullying, as well as the victims. There are no innocent bystanders; tolerating the abuse of bullying is as harmful as the actions themselves. And yet, 62 percent of employers ignore workplace bullying.

At a time when corporate America is having difficulty attracting the next generation of talent, tolerance of bullying gives the workforce of tomorrow another reason to shun big business and corporations. As much awareness as there is today about the importance of company culture to facilitating productive and innovative work environments, how is it that bullying in the workplace can be such a widespread issue? When advancing people into leadership roles, it's crucial we put as much, if not more, emphasis on qualities and traits such as emotional intelligence and servant leadership as we do on strategic thinking and financial acumen.

We know bullying isn't effective and is detrimental. So, how can you be a good boss that gets the most out of your employees? Here are a few ways I approach it:

  • Compliment people in public and give constructive feedback in private – shaming in front of peers kills motivation and overshadows the real issue.
  • Focus on the issue, not the individual – look closely at what transpired and the outcome, which is where you'll root out what went wrong.
  • Never pass judgment without first seeking to understand – get all the facts before rushing to condemn or penalize. Taking time to look at the circumstance in depth, from different vantage points, gives you invaluable insight.
  • Preface your feedback by acknowledging your support for the employee – if you come from a place of constructive feedback, not judgment, it will allow the person to truly hear you instead of rush to defend themselves.
  • Be direct with compassion – honesty is not only the best policy but it is what will earn you the respect and loyalty of your employee.

These are not new concepts but are more crucial today than ever before. The definition of emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control one's emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. At Two Roads Hospitality, we firmly believe in a culture of inclusion and a set of core values.

I am very clear that modeling and instilling those values begins with me. It is my responsibility and duty to all of the team members in our care to ensure they feel valued, welcome and celebrated for who they are. And to ensure that everyone is treated with respect at all times. And yet, all of that may not be enough.

With the prevalence of bullying in the workplace today, it's time we take the steps necessary to raise awareness of the issue throughout our companies and implement training and policies against bullying. Inroads have been made in training how to identify, prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace. Bullying must be treated with similar gravity. We must describe what bullying is, implement a zero-tolerance policy, and execute disciplinary actions swiftly up to and including termination for violation.

We need to take the same aggressive stance on the emotional, psychological and physical damage bullying has on our workforce as we would if an employee physically assaulted another. The prevalence of workplace bullying requires comprehensive awareness campaigns and proactive prevention to protect the health and well-being of any company's most important asset – its people.

Commentary by Niki Leondakis, CEO of hotels and resorts, Two Roads Hospitality. Follow her on Twitter @Niki_Leondakis.

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