Who, me? If it comes as a shock that your team finds your style too forceful, it is time to reflect, says coach Sheila Williams

What are the differences between firm management and bullying?

Bullying is assessed as behaviour that is unacceptable by reasonable, normal standards and is disadvantageous or unwelcome to the individual. However, what is reasonable and normal for one may be unacceptable to others.

The employment relations service ACAS characterises bullying as "offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient".

It is hard to get agreement on objective measures of what constitutes bullying behaviour. Nowhere is this more apparent than when managers are dealing with staff underperformance.

Linda is a manager who came from a "command and control" culture into an organisation with a radically different approach. She is ambitious, dynamic and has, as she puts it, "a short fuse". Her style of management led to a formal complaint of bullying by one of her team. Other team members gave witness to this during the internal investigation that followed.

The investigation team concluded that she had used inappropriate and bullying behaviour - in particular losing her temper with the individual on a number of occasions and belittling them in public.

Linda was angry at being labelled a bully and felt her career ambitions were blighted. She said: "In my previous job anyone could have a rant and it would all be over and forgotten about 10 minutes later. It was never personal, just a way of letting off steam. No one ever called anyone a bully."

In coaching sessions, I helped Linda explore different management and communication styles to compare and contrast with Linda's own style. We reviewed some of the situations referred to in the investigation report to see how, with hindsight, she could have taken a different approach. She also reluctantly attended an anger management programme.

For Linda, it was acceptable to show her anger, to threaten and cajole, to push her staff hard in order to achieve targets. This had established her reputation as an effective manager and brought success earlier in her career. Now, in a different organisation, she failed to recognise that previously successful behaviours were no longer appropriate. Linda struggled to adapt to the new culture and eventually left the organisation.

Feeling the pressure

In a target driven culture, where there is intense pressure to achieve, it is possible for managers to move unwittingly towards bullying. It is also possible to draw back if we recognise the risk in time. June discovered this when she was appointed to manage a team with a history of poor performance.

She was told the implementation of a team improvement plan was top priority. June imposed a number of measures and, as a self-confessed worrier and perfectionist, monitored the team closely and in detail.

She knew the team was resentful of some of the measures: for example, the introduction of itemised daily work logs. But she thought these essential to make headway with her plan. Two team members refused to complete these logs and complained about her overbearing supervision. In discussing this, June's manager commented on how her approach could look like bullying.

June's first reactions were shock and denial. "It stopped me in my tracks and almost overnight I lost confidence in what I was doing. I thought I was being a firm but fair manager and yet someone, whose opinion I respected, appeared to see my actions in such a different light".

In a coaching session, June expressed deep concern about continuing with the improvement plan. "I fear that whatever I do now will be seen by the staff as bullying."

We discussed what she saw as the differences between firm management and bullying and she drew up a list of behaviours (see below). This helped her reflect on her own approach and clarify how she could adapt it. Since then, she has changed the daily work logs into standard weekly diaries. She has started to develop the improvement strategy jointly with her team rather than impose it on them. She still has difficulties with one or two people in the team, but she has grasped the nettle and is working closely and supportively with them.

She said: "I see I was under pressure and anxious about the team's performance. I felt I needed to know every detail of what went on, of what the team were doing.

"I've found it takes endless patience to let them work through the issues for themselves, but I'm getting better at knowing when to speak and when to stay silent and let them arrive at their own conclusions."

Drawing the line

June was shocked when she was told her style could sometimes look like bullying, but coaching helped her to separate firm behaviours from bullying behaviours. What would you put on your list?

Firm management

  • Sets and monitors clear goals and targets

  • Sets high standards; expects self and staff to meet them

  • Allows and trusts people to get on with the job but will intervene if necessary. Adapts style: light touch to firm, as needed

  • Deals with genuine underperformance immediately and focuses on the issues and the behaviour

  • Is consistent in words and action; staff know "where they stand"

  • Provides constructive feedback, specific and related to issues/ behaviour. Praises and acknowledges achievement

  • Is emotionally mature; not afraid to express feelings but does so constructively and in a controlled manner

  • Fair. Treats people equally and consistently

Bullying management

  • Imposes unclear, random, unrealistic targets; changes them at short notice without explanation

  • Has low expectations of everyone and expects staff to fail

  • Overbearing, petty micromanagement; dominates; only uses one style

  • Abdicates responsibility; blames others; focuses on the person not the issues

  • Inconsistent, random actions; "do as I say not as I do"

  • Constant carping criticism; singles people out; never praises or acknowledges achievements; takes credit for self

  • Is emotionally immature; expresses negative feelings volubly, often in public; "rants" and can be out of control

  • Favouritism and cronyism