Workplace Wars: psychopaths vs. pedants

Last year an anonymous survey of NHS Chief Executives was published in the Health Service Journal reporting that 43% of them plan to leave their jobs because of the bullying epidemic in the NHS. Even at these dizzy managerial heights, this survey had to be anonymous because talking about bullying looks from a distance just like career suicide, particularly when you’re having a pop at other managers.


In this age of institutional collapse,  leadership on the issue of bullying, probably the most important management issue of our time, has gone AWOL. The reason why we need to care deeply about the mental health of our health managers is that its on their watch that the NHS developed a culture of bullying like a Petri dish on a radiator. Although only 1% of the population lives with actual psychopathy, a sick manager will have a disastrous impact on teams, working conditions and people’s sense of trust and safety at work.


This leaves a generous majority of managers who aren’t actually psychopaths, just ordinary faulty individuals who face choices about which management church they go to. Given the high risk of bullying taking over work in a recession, I’d like to offer some advice to managers who don’t want to develop a degenerative form of mental illness, arguing against psychopathy, in favour of pedantry.


Firstly, wake the hell up.

You don’t have to be a psychopath to be a bad manager. Busy managers are bad at noticing things, caught up in the oohlala of meetingsmeetingsmeetings, a real management failing which allows bullying to become established. If you’re faced with a wall of silence at staff meetings there’s something wrong. You can guarantee that the people you manage will not volunteer their nasty bullying ways. Nobody will ever come up to you and say “I’ve got a terrible habit of humiliating my team and making them want to give up and die. Yup, really enjoy it, feel like a king amongst men. Living. The. Dream.” So open your eyes, spend a few hours a week just observing your teams and making your own mind up what is not being said in those Monday morning catch ups.


Secondly, take the blame

We live in an age where even teenagers know that the current economic crisis wasn’t their fault. It went wrong at the top. One of the biggest failings of our Government and corporate leaders is not to take the blame for the haemorrhaging of jobs and careers that has only just got started. Psychopaths never take the blame because they never ever make mistakes (omnipotence, duh). Redundancy involves the shame of things having gone wrong. In the current crisis we can’t avoid a date with the reality of job loss, but we can deal with the violence of the shame being projected onto the victims of it. So suck it up and take the blame for the mistakes that have been made, both individually and collectively. It’s what leadership actually means in a recession and bluntly speaking its why you’re paid more than the people that work for you. It really did happen on your watch.


Thirdly, feel badly

Psychopaths don’t feel bad. They feel quite good actually because other people don’t even touch the sides. No self doubt, guilt or private sobs in the works loos. This is the distinguishing characteristic of a sane manager, feeling vulnerable and badly about yourself. So I suggest you spend more time feeling it. Feel the pain of having to pull out a power point rather than having a conversation, feel the discomfort of a shareholders meeting ending with blood on the walls, allow yourself to stutter and blush telling your team that there will be cuts after Easter. And don’t, whatever you do send those letters out at 4pm on a Friday. Send them out at 9.30am on a Monday and leave your door wide open for people to tell you exactly what they think of you.


Finally, become a pedant

Dealing with bullying means setting a bottom line below which we’re not prepared to go. Pedants have the annoying habit of pointing out facts. Facts like:

• You can’t say the words “get a grip crazy” to someone with depression that  works for you

• Just because the law says someone going through chemotherapy is fit for work doesn’t mean you have to make them turn up every day

• Joining a trade union is a human right enshrined in international law


Last year I did a gig about resilience with a bunch of Health and Safety reps from Unison. Trade unions and health and safety, helloooooooooooooo planet pedantry. We might have been talking about stress indicators and the solid stuff of  basic health at work but the psychic experience was like being hugged by Ghandi.


Pedantry chips away at the catastrophising parts of us that gives up in the face of bullying, or demands a final solution. Just because things have got rough at work, doesn’t mean we have to jump off the cliff. Instead, take a brisk walk in the other direction using the law, common sense and a firm parental hand.  Fairness at work really is a silver bullet and a fast track to a decent nights sleep on a school night.


Don’t be defeated by the realisation that your workplace has a bout of bullying. Acknowledging this hateful aspect of our own humanity is not the end of civilization nor does it require a Leviathanesque approach to management.  If you’re a manager in an workplace war zone, don’t be a hero because it’s in the small stuff that the war on bullying is won.

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