Bullying at the Executive Level

Recently, I ran into a woman at a cocktail party. She was smart, articulate and successful, but above all she was confident. It didn’t take long, however, for her to start talking about the problems she was having at work. In short, she had just been hired three months ago as the vice president of sales for a successful company with notable double-digit growth and she was bringing in impressive clients, outshining others in her group.

Her colleagues didn’t have a problem with her success … except for one.

Her problem was a colleague who had only been there three months longer, but had immediately taken to berating her at meetings, rolling his eyes when she spoke, talking about her behind her back, pretty much making work difficult and taking away any opportunity she could have to enjoy her successes.

When she asked her other colleagues if they observed any problems, she said they were aware something was wrong and would confirm to her that her suspicions were correct, but they didn’t want to get involved and didn’t feel it was their problem.

She didn’t know what to do and her only idea was to make a snarky remark to him during a meeting in front of their boss about his behavior. Naturally, she wanted to give him a taste of his own medicine. I told her that was a bad idea, and the conversation shifted from there.

Does this sound familiar?

Have you ever had to deal with a co-worker or colleague who never discussed concerns or issues with you directly? A person whose approach was to tell other people about a disagreement with you, to chip away at your confidence and successes by interrupting you during meetings, or blatantly talking about you behind your back, not even caring that it all got back to you?

This is the behavior of a passive-aggressive person and it can happen for any number of reasons. Sometimes it’s a minor infraction due to a miscommunication. Having a straightforward conversation can clear it up. Other times, it has nothing to do with you and surfaces only because the other person feels threatened or insecure around you and uses this behavior as a defense mechanism. It can also happen at any level of an organization, but when it happens at the executive level, more is at stake.

Here are a few ways to turn the situation around.

  1. Recognizing the clues of hidden anger

As mentioned, typical behavior involves sabotage, misdirection, gossip, and building alliances in the company against you. To a passive-aggressive person, these are warnings, and he or she will use them to send a subtle message. Ironically, calling the passive-aggressive person out publicly will result in complete denial while simultaneously encouraging the resentful behavior. Have you ever heard any of these statements in response to your legitimate complaints?

“Hey man, can’t you take a joke?”

“You’re obviously sensitive and being emotional.”

“I sent you email to try to connect but you never responded.”

With a passive-aggressive person, it’s hard to tell initially because he or she wants to come across as friendly, while undermining you secretly. Knowing what you’re dealing with is half the battle. As mentioned above, discreetly asking a few of your colleagues for feedback can confirm your suspicions.

  1. Dependency creates a damaging cycle

In the above example, if my friend had gone with her original idea of making a snide remark during a meeting, it would have only shown that she’s capable of sinking down to his level when dealing with problems. It would also encourage his behavior, and cause the situation to escalate.

This is not the image you want to create for yourself, especially when you are new to the team or company. As hard as it is, controlling your anger and developing a strategy for diffusing this person is your best course of action. Passive-aggressive people thrive on making their victims angry in hopes of turning them into the enemy. Resist the urge to fight fire with fire.

  1. Ending the enabling trap

If you can’t fight on his level, what’s your recourse? Whether both people are very new to the company, as in this case, or they are longtime colleagues, there’s a power dynamic at play. No matter how deeply you are entangled with a passive-aggressive person, taking the first step to document everything and go to someone in authority you trust is the quickest way to end a damaging and co-dependent cycle of passive-aggression. This puts you in a great position to change the dynamic in your favor.

In the above example, because both executives are new (less than a year into employment), they each have an opportunity to establish who they are professionally and how their behavior contributes to the culture of the business. He’s already showing his true colors. For her, having a serious sit-down with her boss, explaining what’s been happening and asking if this is how the company does business, gives her a powerful voice and establishes that she’s serious about contributing to a healthy culture that celebrates wins and contributes to her career in a positive way.

  1. Finding a positive outcome and changing the dynamic

Review your accomplishments and look for a pattern of where your successes have triggered bad behavior from your colleague. Your record of success gives you leverage when negotiating a favorable outcome with your boss – “you hired me to do XYZ and in three months I’ve already delivered it and more.” After discussing the issues at hand, end the meeting by suggesting a timeframe to deal with the problem. Thirty days is enough time to establish a pattern of behavior and provide evidence that a problem exists. Make sure to set clear expectations that within the 30 days you will have documentation that a problem exists and suggestions for a favorable solution. This way, you are creating an alliance with your boss early and establishing yourself as a problem-solver.

What if none of this works and I’m still victimized?

Unfortunately, sometimes that happens. You may find that you work at a company where the culture is unhealthy and the dynamic between teams, departments and leadership is strained. If your boss signals that the organization really is a cut-throat business and unhealthy competition among the ranks is good, then you have two choices: 1) adjust your approach so you fit this culture, or 2) find another job where the culture suits your strengths. I always suggest the latter.

 

Resources

For further reading, check out the following books:

  • Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness, Tim Murphy and Loriann Hoff Oberlin
  • Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man: Coping with Hidden Aggression – from the Bedroom to the Boardroom, Scott Wetzler
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