People need goals, priorities, and leadership. But understand the difference between emphasizing accountability … and bullying.

Bullies do not usually think of themselves as bullies. They tend to call their actions something else: “having fun,” “joking around,” “making a point,” and so on.

There has been plenty of discussion about the “epidemic” of bullying in schools and communities. But what about bullies in the workplace?

I have been in numerous meetings where a CEO’s behavior could not be described as anything other than bullying. When I take CEOs aside and ask them why they are approaching a team member in a manner I consider to be overly aggressive, their responses usually sound something like this:

  • “These people have to be held accountable.”
  • “It’s the only way to get through to that guy.”
  • “I’m tired of the excuses; people are going to have to step up, or step out.”

Does this sound familiar? And more to the point: Have you yourself ever said these things about your team?

Discussions of accountability and performance improvement do not need to equal bullying. It’s about how you have the conversations.

Here are a few ways to make sure you’re getting it right.

Threats vs. Clear Expectations

Here are the problems with threats of workplace consequences. For one thing, a person will only perform the way you want as long as the threat is present. Additionally, you create the potential for bad behavior–dishonesty, hiding information, not asking for help.

When change is needed, you need a better way to talk about the consequences of failing.

Bad: “I’m tired of the excuses. You need to get it done or I’ll get someone who can.”

Better: “In the next 90 days, I need these changes in performance in your area of responsibility. You are the person accountable for the results in this area, which means when the results are below expectations, I expect you to fix them. I can provide resources, clarity, and break logjams–but ultimately, you need to move the performance needle.”

Dialogue vs. Monologue

Using your power position to shut down conversation is bullying. By shutting down the conversation, you have not changed any one’s opinions or secured their commitment to your plan–you have just created discontented grumblers.

I’m not saying that business is a democracy, but there are different ways to wrap up the conversation.

Bad: “I don’t want to hear about that. … We’re not going to discuss it. … Get on board or get out.”

Better: “I’d like to hear each person’s final comments and then I’ll make the decision. … I value everyone’s feedback. Once I have it, then it’s my responsibility to choose a course of action.”

Attacks vs. Facts

When you go after intentions, personal style and what you deem to be an individual’s flaws, you get into trouble. You are on safer ground when you discuss the outcomes, data, and facts that need to change.

Bad: “The reason you didn’t get the deal is that you don’t listen. … No one takes you seriously because you dress, talk and act like a clown. … That’s your problem, you don’t get it.”

Better: “Let’s review the facts in order in this last deal and see if we can figure out what we missed or should do differently next time. … Our contacts at the prospect company said that they are not confident in our ability to deliver. Let’s look at our people, process, technology and experience and define the gaps.”

People need leadership. Clear direction, goals, honest feedback and accountability are all components of that leadership.

If you focus on the process and outcomes, however, you retain greater objectivity and can keep on the right side of the line.

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