Budget cuts, redundancies, increased completion, the demands for more efficiency and concerns about patient care can result in management bullying. This is where managers make unreasonable demands, set impossible targets with unrealistic timescales. But managers get bullied too.
In fact if there is a culture of bullying in an organisation it probably comes from the top.
I have been subjected to bullying behaviour, as I’m sure most senior managers have at some point in their career. It is probably not surprising that some of those subjected to this type of behaviour transfer it to those they manage.
The best managers protect their staff from this behaviour and model a different style of management. But what do you do if you find yourself being bullied? It’s no use hoping they will go away or leave you alone - you need to change jobs. But this can take months. How do you survive a bad manager in the meantime?
Manging your manager
You need to manage your manager. Bullies are insecure people often afraid of being exposed as incompetent or unworthy of their position and are probably being bullied themselves by someone higher up.
Don’t feed their insecurities, don’t be secretive and don’t talk about them behind their back. Let them take the credit, be prepared to appear to accept the blame however unjustified. Don’t make them feel any more inadequate than they already feel. So ask their opinion and acknowledge their experience rather than expose their ignorance. Don’t complain about them to colleagues, or you risk it getting back to them.
A bully is someone who tries to make you feel bad about yourself. Bullies seek to undermine confidence so look elsewhere for feedback and recognition. Make allies elsewhere in the organisation and in partner organisations to prove you can get on with others, are easy to work with and do deliver. In other words, do all the things the bully says you can’t.
There are formal processes open to staff subject to bullying but these are really designed for staff feeling bullied by their manager not managers being bullied by senior managers or politicians.
These processes work where a manager’s behaviour can be independently investigated and if substantiated pressure can be bought to bear. No manager wants to be exposed as a bully because this means they are a poor manager and all managers think they are good managers just as everyone thinks they are a good driver.
Avoid the bully
It’s amazing how much of your job you can do without seeing your manager or talking about work. Keep them off work topics by talking about whatever they are interested in whenever possible. Don’t take your holidays at the same time: this way you can spend the best part of summer without seeing them. Six weeks’ annual leave is twelve weeks you don’t have to meet.
One to ones can be stressful so seize the initiative: fill the agenda with information about what’s happening in your section/service. Fill the time and don’t leave space for the introduction of contentious areas or opportunities to criticise you or your work. Offer to turn the notes you made in preparation for the meeting into a record of the meeting. That way you control the record of the meeting reducing the chances that they will be used to further undermine you. Never re-arrange a meeting they have cancelled and make sure your diary has no gaps when they are free.
Resisting new and unreasonable demands can be difficult since you are clearly not supposed to say no or point out you already have too much to do. One perfectly reasonable strategy is to say that you are happy to take on new pieces of work but as you are fully stretched with existing work what would they advise are priorities.
You then run through all your existing pieces of work just to remind them. I once did this and my manager stormed out of his own office. I’m not sure whether this is a good recommendation for this course of action but at the time it felt like a small victory of sorts.
I survived the last six months by changing his diary when his PA was out to lunch. All meetings were entered in pencil because if someone more senior wanted his attendance this took priority. He was forever cancelling his meetings and rearranging his diary. I just rubbed out the meetings. The space would be quickly filled.
I didn’t complain about the lack of opportunities to meet and he either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Not a long term strategy but sometimes you just have to do whatever it takes to get you through the next few weeks.