• Thrive Inc.

Blaming and Shaming: Bullying As a Leadership Style

If you’re a leader, how often do you get into the tendency of using shame, blame, and bullying to get your teammates in line? If you’re on a team, how often have you been on the receiving end of this behavior? In many cases, it happens so often that it has become accepted corporate culture.

In corporations, there are strong patterns where bullying leadership is acceptable behavior. It can manifest in a range of ways – both direct and indirect – but it is not an effective way to solve problems. It is the responsibility of the entire team to make a change, and the more you get curious and interested about bullying behavior, the better you can approach this.

In this episode, we’re talking about the power of team accountability and how to recognize and call out bullying and shaming tactics. We’re teaching you how to pay attention to your own behaviors and actions, and how to stop being complicit in these behaviors in the workplace.

If you want to make a difference for either yourself and your career, or your team and your organization, be sure to reach out to us and sign up for coaching! We can come and do a book club or simply visit with your team! Don’t worry about physical limitations – we work really well virtually, too!

If you enjoyed the show, please share the podcast with your family and friends, or post a five-star review on iTunes. Rating and reviewing the show helps spread the word, which means less friction and suffering for everyone, and who doesn’t want that?

Listen on Apple Podcast | Stitcher | Spotify

Learn More:

  • Why it’s possible to be human and a leader.

  • The part you could be playing in a bullying corporate environment.

  • How to improve your leadership skills.

  • Some signs and signals of bullying leadership tactics.

  • Tips for having difficult conversations about behavior.

  • How to recognize and work with your own internal bully.


Full Transcript:

CrisMarie: Welcome to The Beauty of Conflict, a podcast about how to deal with conflict at work, at home and everywhere else in your life. I am CrisMarie.

Susan: And I'm Susan.

CrisMarie: We run a company called Thrive Inc, and we specialize in conflict resolution, stress management coaching and building strong, thriving teams and relationships both in person and virtually.

Susan: We are starting 2021 with a series based on our book, The Beauty of Conflict for Teams. We’ll be sharing tips, tools about how to make your team work more effectively especially in this remote and virtual environment. We hope you’ll walk away from this episode and this series with some fresh ideas that change your day, your week and even your life.

CrisMarie: Today we’re continuing on the Beauty of Conflict for Teams podcast series. And we are talking about chapter 22 in the Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team’s Competitive Advantage. And chapter 22 is The Power of Team Accountability. And here we’re talking about how often we get into a tendency of using shame, and blame, and even bullying to get our teammates in line. And it continues so far that it becomes like an accepted corporate culture that we are operating that way.

Susan: Yeah. I mean I think it’s – we actually reward people sometimes without even recognizing it, recognizing that really what they’re doing as their leadership style is shaming and bullying and it’s okay, and blaming. And I think CrisMarie, talking a little bit about why this is such a passionate thing for you would be good.

CrisMarie: Yeah. So what I recognized in this monumental transfer of power that the United States experienced the January 20th, the different leadership styles from the old president to the new. And what came up after the inauguration is I just felt immense rage at what I interpreted as bullying behavior from the previous president. And I think I was safe enough once the new president was in to let myself feel that. I had kind of repressed that and kind of made it okay how the previous president behaved. And what I recognized is…

Susan: I don’t think you made it okay but you did…

CrisMarie: I downplayed and tried to settle you down if you were talking, you know, getting upset. And why I think this is really true for me is because I grew up with a bully. And so I had to shut up and I learned quite quickly I had to answer quickly, be smart, know how to do things, not make mistakes, be succinct and know what I’m talking about. And if I didn’t I would be shamed. And so I didn’t want that to happen. And what I now, all grown up me, I have that bully inside of me.

And I can bully you Susan, when you seem like you don’t know what you’re doing I can give you a dirty look or say, “Fine, I’ll take care of it.” I blame and shame you, I act like a bully because that’s what was done to me and that’s what I’m recognizing is it’s usually when I am stressed out and I think oh my gosh, I’m going to fail or I don’t know how to do this. And so it comes out as meanness towards you and that’s very humbling to admit. And it’s something that I’m very aware of and working on in my own leadership and how I deal with it.

Susan: What I really appreciate about what you’re saying is that here you are in the throes of acknowledging and recognizing the anger you felt at how you may have even silenced yourself, CrisMarie in light of our four years of having this president who used, I think praised himself for using a bullying style, and you are recognizing in that.

So what really strikes me, one, I appreciated that you allowed yourself to feel that rage. But then didn’t just keep throwing it out at him. But actually started to look at, well, if I have – and what I’m hearing is if I have this much energy I’m maybe allowing myself to feel and acknowledge that anger. Allowed you to then look at where might I be bullying?

CrisMarie: Yes. And I think that so often it’s easy to project that person over there, I can blame him as the problem. And that doesn’t really get me anywhere and if somebody is such a trigger for me there’s some resonance inside of me and that’s what I’m working with. And I think that’s what we coach leaders to do when we’re coaching.

Susan: And I think one of the things – I mean we’re kind of going a little on the political spectrum here which I’m okay with for a bit, in the sense of that we watched what happened on January 6th which was the overtaking of the Capitol to its maximum we had reached. Now, and also what happened after that was so many large corporations pulled money, did this from the political parties they were holding accountable. And I think in a way were doing a version of you like, “Okay, this is no longer acceptable and we are going to…”

CrisMarie: Blame them.

Susan: Yeah. And sadly, I hope what will happen as we go forward is that these same organizations will look at themselves and say, “How have I participated in getting us...” We can always make the president going out the problem. But if that’s all we do we are not dealing with the actual conditions under which build a shaming and bullying leadership strategy, organizational strategy. So it’s not, our government may be divided.

But I think within our corporations we also have some really strong patterns where that is acceptable behavior until something gets called out and then a lot of money gets thrown to solve the problem. But it really doesn’t solve the problem.

CrisMarie: It doesn’t solve it unless, yeah, people in an organization are taking accountability, not blaming the blamer even but looking at – so we want to talk about – and you might recognize your company.

Some behaviors that you do, your leader does, are sanctioned and nobody – they happen and nobody says anything which is during a meeting if somebody says something rather than replying to that person, maybe there’s just silence like it’s just like a turd dropped in the room. And that’s what the person feels like, oh my God, what did I say? Did I say something wrong? And they don’t even know.

Susan: I have coached so many people in two different situations. One, a leader who’s like, “I bring these things up repeatedly and no one says anything so I feel like I’m just not valued.” And so that’s one.

CrisMarie: In their team meetings?

Susan: In their team meetings and I’m like, “Well, do you say anything at that point?” And often they don’t because they’re like, “Well, everyone went silent. I would expect people to speak up.” Or I’ve actually heard it from other people who say, “There’s this one person on my team and”, often is she but sometimes it’s he, “Will bring up the people issue and we just don’t comment on it. We just sort of let it slide. But I don’t think we’re actually in agreement with her. I think we’re actually just ignoring her”, which that’s the sign.

CrisMarie: Yeah. Another sign, I don’t know if you recognize this but I actually do this. If you say something, Susan, and I’m like I give you a dirty look, like how dare you say that? Or I cannot believe you actually brought that up, or rolling of the eyes. I’m not saying this with words, it’s all in my look or I’ll just huff.

Susan: If you could see her now, she’s giving an example and I am silenced.

CrisMarie: But it is humbling to admit these things, these behaviors. But we are – for those of you that can even consider maybe you do this, remember, we learned how to operate quite young. So if this was done to you it makes sense that it’s in your nervous system and you need to become, if you’re willing I invite you to become aware of it and then there are things you can do to shift it.

Susan: Or I also think that can show up like the rolling of the eyes or the other way I’ve seen it show up in a meeting is two people will sort of just they look at each other with that knowing look, like we know she’s off her rocker. And in a way you may not think of that, it’s not like the big bully. But it is a shaming quality that we can do which is not actually useful.

CrisMarie: No, because shame is about whether you belong in the group and so if two people say, “I can’t believe that.” You’re saying you’re an outcast, that’s what that is broadcasting to that person. Harder to do on Zoom meetings right now because you can’t look across a square and say that.

Susan: But you might be able to go into that private chat where it’s just that person which in case you don’t know is often being recorded so I wouldn’t do it if I was you. I would suggest you do something completely different.

CrisMarie: There is also just the tone in which you say something. I was coaching somebody who is dealing with somebody who has a very aggressive and, she interprets, shaming style. And it’s just the tone like, “Really? Why didn’t you do this?” There’s a disgust, or a disdain, or a contempt and impatience. “Well, we don’t have time for that.” So those are the words but you can also hear the tone that’s like, “Just get out of my way.”

Susan: Yeah. And I think that one of the things that’s interesting about that, because the tone that sets up for a shaming blaming culture is disgust, contempt, dismissive or impatient. So it helps me when I think of what does my tone go to? How do I recognize those things? Because I do know when I’m – well, hopefully I know when I am in my own disgust, contempt. Now, maybe I have so much shame around it that I don’t actually even know. And that’s important to recognize. I do care. And this is where feedback becomes critical.

CrisMarie: It is interesting because for my own process of learning how to recognize my bully, which comes up in relationship to you Susan because you’re my safe person. But this doesn’t show up when there’s somebody in a position of authority. I may not even recognize I’m actually upset with them. And instead, the energy will come towards you because you’re safe as opposed to the big important boss person who I’m too intimidated to have any of that.

Susan: So in that case it may even be recognizing when my disgust, or contempt, or dismissive comes up even towards one of my teammates it may not be them that’s really the issue. There’s something else going on. So I think that’s a great point.

CrisMarie: We talk about this in the Dance of Anger, she talks about triangulations, those are triangles and relationships that we create all the time. And if I have a boss that is actually not doing their job and I’m upset with them but I’m not really even aware that I’m upset with them. I’ll go to a different part of the triangle which is you Susan, and I’ll deal with my anxiety with you. This comes true, if you get mad at the kids because you had a bad meeting. That’s that energy, it’s not safe to process it in your view with the person at work, and so it comes across with the kids or the spouse.

Susan: I think right now with virtual meetings, that’s happening all the time, I mean I don’t know how many people I coach that are thinking I don’t even know why I’m at this meeting. It’s like I don’t understand why we’re having it, it’s not productive. And I can almost guarantee you in that same coaching session they are telling me about how they’re having issues in their relationship at home or how they’re getting testy with their kids. And it’s because you’re not dealing with this meeting. But that’s sort of how – that’s that triangulation.

CrisMarie: So again, signs and signals that shaming, blaming, bullying, or silence, dirty looks, rolling of the eyes, you may even have other ideas out there. We’d love to hear them.

Susan: But the one you didn’t bring up which is my favorite is interrupting and taking over.

CrisMarie: Let me just do that again, I’ll just interrupt and take over.

Susan: Because it is probably the loudest on the spectrum, it’s a pretty obvious one of that of kind of bullying. And it is like I’m going to interrupt you and take you back to where you should be. And hopefully you can recognize that as a potential.

CrisMarie: I just want to say because this can come up even at home. We were trying to change batteries in this comp - because we have a lot of power outages and we have this new light and it takes eight batteries. And Susan was sitting there struggling with it and I was like just – it’s like I elbow you out of the way. Let me just do it. And that is a form of…

Susan: Bullying.

CrisMarie: Yes. I just want to say, “Let me do it because I know better than you, give it to me.”

Susan: And again one of the things we want to say, I mean what I want to say right now is the key here is the more you can become curious and interested, because you are not going to get rid of shaming and bullying by shaming and bullying. And so you can’t do it to another person and you can’t do it to yourself. So if you can find a way to recognize with some goodwill and some compassion for yourself, yeah, I do interrupt and I take over. Or I do use that tone when I think it will work with my kids, like you’ve got to be kidding.

CrisMarie: Yeah, I give them the evil eye, even that phrase, you’ve got to be kidding, we all agree over here. So I’m gathering a whole group of people that you are the problem, you don’t belong. And even saying if you’re a leader, “I can’t get good people or I can’t get smart people”, those are all ways of dismissing the total person if somebody is struggling. And I think that’s really what shaming, and blaming, and bullying is, it’s objectifying this other human being as they are an object, they are the problem, they’re less than you, less than me, and so get out of my way.

Susan: And I’ve seen it happen where there is this global attempt to kind of solve the problem, we are all agreed, what’s your problem? Now, if you think about that, I can see where it might come from.

CrisMarie: Do you mean global language?

Susan: Yeah, global language in a meeting, the rest of the team is onboard, why aren’t you? That’s not really helping someone be sincere and honest about what’s happening. And they might have a valid point. And so you have to really pay attention to when do you use global language because that is a good sign when you’re doing the we’s and all of us.

CrisMarie: It’s a red flag.

Susan: It’s a red flag that you might be in this culture of shaming and blaming.

CrisMarie: Or always or never. And I do want to tie this into diversity and inclusion because this can come up around mansplaining. So you can have sexist. You can have homophobic. You can have racist. All those different categories, these same behaviors are transmitted. And so what companies will do is, “Hey, we’re going to spend a whole bunch of money and train everybody on diversity and inclusion.” Which while that is helpful I don’t know if it’s really getting at this behavior of I am making myself better than you and you are lowly.

And it’s tricky because organizations do have hierarchies. So am I more important because I’m the boss? But it’s this idea of bettering, and less than, and objectifying human beings.

Susan: I think it’s really critical and I think you do bring up a good point. It’s like just training alone doesn’t actually get there. And that’s why I was even saying, this isn’t about necessarily getting this right. It’s about beginning to be compassionate and recognize wow, I really do shame and bully. Here’s the way I do it. I think all of us do it in some fashion, some more indirect and passive, some more direct.

CrisMarie: Yeah. Indirect ways because we haven’t shared that, but when you’re gossiping about somebody with the intention of kind of poisoning the well, trying to get people to go to your viewpoint that this person really is the problem.

Susan: Or not inviting people to meetings. I mean I don’t know. I mean I can remember a long time ago being on a faculty and this person who I just remember, she did something and she actually was very passive aggressive. And she had a great explanation for why she didn’t invite me or something. I can’t remember. But it was like okay, pay attention to; do you leave that person out? Or what is behind that?

CrisMarie: And this may seem like it’s more direct but when somebody says something and there’s silence, or it’s ignored, or then somebody says it and everybody chimes, you know, that’s the mansplaining, typically a man will say it and people listen. But it could be just even another person. And it’s this almost this inflexibility to, like in this, if we take away sexism, racism, homophobia, it’s just somebody who’s trying to show up and maybe they are not – they’re making a mistake, they’re fumbling. And that is so un-tolerated in the corporate environment.

You are then, you have made a mistake or maybe they flubbed up their presentation or they weren’t ready. And all of a sudden they become a non-player. We’re going to sideline them. Maybe we’ll keep them but they become ostracized in a certain way. I see you thinking, what are you thinking about Susan?

Susan: Well, I keep going back to, this might be where I can share.

CrisMarie: Go ahead.