Worried You’re A Bully? Ask Madeleine

October 7, 2023 Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Dear Madeleine,

I manage a few teams—data scientists, bio engineers, research fellows, project managers—in a fast-growing biotech company. I have teams in Southern California, Canada, Eastern Europe, and Indonesia. The teams pass work off between time zones; if one person doesn’t complete their piece during the workday, it puts their counterpart behind. The pressure is tremendous. When we hire, I am very candid about the nature of the work and the expectations. We only hire people who have completed grueling academic programs, so they are used to the pace.

Lately, things are more intense than usual. We are very close to reaching our goal but our last round of funding is nearly exhausted and we have missed some deadlines.

I recently heard from our HR person that someone has filed a complaint against me, saying I have been bullying them. I am not sure who made the complaint or what I am supposed to have done and I am not at all clear about the potential repercussions. Our HR person is new, does not seem particularly competent, and has never worked in a global company as far I can tell. I live and work in Eastern Europe and am not sure what laws apply, as the company is headquartered in the US.

I admit I am very tough on my people and we have all been under a lot of pressure. I have been called a lot of things—demanding, exacting, even harsh. But I have always tried to be fair and have never thought of myself as a bully.

What is the difference between having high standards and being results-oriented, and being a bully? What can I do about the accusation? How should I protect myself? How can I stop this kind of perception? Maybe what I am really trying to figure out is:

Am I a Bully?


Dear Am I a Bully?,

This is a big, complicated topic, and I encourage you to discuss all of these questions with the HR representative—especially what you can do about the accusation and how you can protect yourself.

The question I can help you with is how you can change the perception. I can only imagine that all of the reflection prompted by this event and the conversations you will be having will help you decide for yourself whether or not you are a bully. That is not for me to judge.

The truth is that someone who intends harm, plots ways to make others miserable, and derives pleasure and a feeling of power from doing so is most definitely a bully. A person who feels compelled to exert power or belittle others for reasons conscious or unconscious but feels terrible about it afterwards may also be a bully. Ultimately, however, the experience of being bullied is the singular and subjective reality of the person having the experience. So, the exact behavior that is registered as a direct conversation by one person might be experienced by another as an aggressive attack. When you are navigating multiple cultures and everyone is under a great deal of pressure, the situation becomes extremely complex.

Let’s take a look at a definition of bullying from The Workplace Bullying Institute: “Workplace bullying is repeated mistreatment and a form of ‘abusive conduct.’ Bullying is a non-physical form of workplace violence.” Another more universal definition from The Centers for Disease Control and Department of Education includes three core elements:

  • unwanted aggressive behavior
  • observed or perceived power imbalance
  • repetition or high likelihood of repetition of bullying behaviors

At work, this would mean a perpetrator targeting someone for repeated mistreatment. This mistreatment can take the form of making threats, intimidating, humiliating, or shaming (either in private or in front of others), sabotaging or stealing another’s work, or verbal abuse. This is not the definitive list, just the usual suspects.

Does any of this sound familiar? I can only assume that you have never intended to be hurtful, but it does stand to reason that there might be people who experience a boss who is, in your words, “very tough, demanding, exacting, even harsh” as hurtful.

In my experience, leaders can get away with being all those things when every team member trusts that the leader has good intentions, has their backs, and acknowledges good work as often as they redirect subpar performance. Notice in the definition is says “unwanted aggressive behavior”.  One might wonder what kind of aggressive behavior is ever wanted, but, I guess, to each their own.

  • Ask yourself: Is it possible that I have a negative judgment or attitude about a team member that is revealed though my words or actions? If the answer is yes, this is something you need to deal with. Revise your judgment, check your attitude, have the hard conversation—do something. If you are tolerating poor performance or lack of competence but are hoping it will go away, this could be tripping you up.
  • Ask yourself: Do I give negative feedback to anyone in front of others? If the answer is yes, cut it out. This can cause intense suffering for the toughest among us.
  • Ask yourself: Do I ever make disparaging remarks about people (even those who aren’t present), use demeaning language, or call people names? If the answer is yes, there might be team members who think it is only a matter of time until they are in your cross hairs.
  • Ask yourself: Do I ever raise my voice in conversation with people who have less power than I do? If the answer is yes, just know that this behavior may roll off the backs of some, but others will find it destabilizing.

It sounds as if there is more than enough adrenaline and cortisol being produced within your teams. To get the results you need, you are going to have to balance your demanding and exacting nature with efforts to ensure that people feel safe enough to think properly. You can find some tips on how to do that here.

Once you get more details about what you are being called to account for in the complaint, you might consider discussing the whole matter openly with your teams. To get some insight into why this might be a smart move, and how to go about it, read this article.

You are who you are. You can develop awareness about the impact you have on different kinds of people, and you can change your behaviors. You can also help your team better understand you, your intentions, and how you are working on yourself, so no one experiences you as a bully. Download this very cool e-book about Building Trust that will give you a sense of some things you can try immediately to change perceptions about you.

If you were truly a bully, I don’t think you would have bothered to ask this question. But it is going to take some work to make sure your intentions match the impact you have on people. The more power you have, the more amplified your impact is—so getting that part right matters more than ever. And the more pressure you are under, the more important it is for you to ensure that you don’t inadvertently affect the care with which you treat your people.

If this all makes sense to you, now is the time for you to embark on a journey of personal transformation. You may choose not to, of course—but then I suspect this complaint will be the first of many to come. That will, eventually, seriously limit your career goals. If you decide to up your game, it won’t be easy and it won’t be comfortable, but you will never regret it.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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