Having a ‘threshold’ for bullying is out of date

If there is a Great British Bully, it is probably Flashman, the vicious schoolboy villain of Thomas Hughes’s Victorian novel Tom Brown’s School Days. Among other things, Flashman toasted Tom in front of a fire as a punishment.

Flashman’s abuse would still count as bullying, according to Dominic Raab, who resigned as UK deputy prime minister on Friday after bullying allegations were upheld against him.

However, in his resignation letter, Raab said the inquiry had “set the threshold for bullying so low” that it had created “a dangerous precedent”. Raab pointed out that, according to the probe, he had not sworn or shouted, thrown anything, physically intimidated or intentionally belittled anyone. But Raab’s bar for bullying is too high and, in many ways, as out of date as Flashman himself.

Employment lawyer Adam Tolley’s inquiry into the allegations against the minister used the common non-legal definition of bullying: “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour” or “an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”.

There are plenty of ways that bullying bosses can meet that definition, without having to throw a single phone or chargrill a fearful junior. They may still commit a brazen act of physical intimidation, but, in the workplace, it is now recognised that bullies are as likely to undermine or discriminate against individuals by laying down a pattern of smaller slurs or “microaggressions”.

A new book, Walk Away to Win, points out workplace bullying can be overt or covert. “Overt bullying behaviour is obvious. It’s yelling, banging on a table, aggressive, threatening behaviour,” Megan Carle, a former Nike executive, writes. “Covert behaviour is hidden, nuanced, subtle.” Leadership adviser Roger Steare says: “It doesn’t have to be a physical threat, so most of the time, it isn’t.”

Raab was, in fact, accused of banging the table. The inquiry concluded this behaviour was not likely to have been alarming and cleared him on six out of eight bullying complaints. On two other occasions, however, Tolley found he had behaved in a way that undermined and humiliated one individual, and made an unspecified threat of disciplinary action that intimidated another.

In his defence, the former deputy prime minister implies that the British public expects “pace, standards and challenge” from ministers.

No doubt voters would like their ministers to be forceful in pushing towards their promised policy outcomes, just as shareholders want chief executives to lead their companies towards strategic targets.

But while the hardcore school of management is enjoying a post-pandemic recessionary resurgence, the reality is that a fearful workforce is often an underperforming workforce. Bullying at work “isn’t only a human issue”, says Steare, it “actually impacts productivity”. As research by Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson and others has demonstrated, the best-performing teams are “psychologically safe”, unafraid to speak up about mistakes and to challenge their bosses and colleagues.

Leave aside the fact that departments headed by Raab do not have much to show for his tough love. He is also one Flashman-esque whisker away from suggesting that the people believe the end justifies the means.

That flies in the face of many voters’ own experience. Two-thirds of Britons have been bullied at some point, according to a recent YouGov poll, and 74 per cent of those said it had affected their lives a great deal or a fair amount. Of those bullied as adults, more than half said the perpetrator was their boss or manager. It is hard to imagine they would be happy to see the same treatment that haunts them meted out to civil servants by the people they elected to run the country.

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