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Confronting bullying on boards: how to get your colleagues to back you

According to a recent Sunday Telegraph report, The Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh (RCSE) says there is an “endemic culture of bullying” in the medical profession. Research by the College found that one in six trainee surgeons are suffering “from battlefield-type Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. Fear “was forcing junior surgeons to cut corners”.

Boards, executive committee and function team members are no less susceptible to bullying behaviour.

Much of this behaviour in business results in a conspiracy of silence, even amongst businesses with in-house lawyers. For these General Counsel, their status as Officers of the Court does not prevent them from being subjected “to elevated ethical pressure”, as reported in a 2016 survey of 400 in-house lawyers by University College London.

The dire consequences of the abuse of power in all facets of life have recently come to light – in television, film, churches, sport, medicine, schools etc. – and their impact should prompt boards to act. But they don’t, because the people affected don’t come together to demand action.

If all trainee surgeons supported each other and refused to be cowed, as a group, the senior surgeons who bully them would quickly find that they can’t do their jobs without them.

In-house lawyers, bullied into silence by their corporate bosses, could form a tighter bond with each other and face down their oppressors.

Board members frequently humiliated – often by powerful CEOs, CFOs or Chairs – could stand up for each other at Board and ExCo meetings.

When I say this to clients, I’m told: “It’s easier said than done”. Indeed it is. It requires courage. Mustering courage is hard. But there are some small changes you can make in your behaviour, which can help.

First, improve your influencing skills with those whose minds and behaviour you are trying to change. In this regard, Professor Richard Thaler recommends persistence; knowing precisely the other’s point of view; having all of the facts; and that you try to intrigue the other party.

By this, according to Tim Harford in the Financial Times, “Prof Thaler realised that most of us are lazy. Most of us don’t want to think hard about our beliefs, or challenges to them. His solution was to make sure those challenges were simply too intriguing to ignore”.

One of my clients was a member of an ExCo, whose CEO was bright but had a short attention span. He was also given to the occasional ritual humiliation of his directors. My client noticed that those ExCo members who piqued his interest with ideas were the least humiliated and the most successful in pitching their proposals to him.

Second, find common cause with your fellows. When I ask clients – business leaders, lawyers or other professionals – why they don’t get together and confront bad behaviour, the answer I receive is that they are often too much in competition with each other to co-operate. But what if you and your colleagues realised the incentive in doing so?

Once I facilitated peace between two warring private practice lawyers on a partnership board. It turned out that, once they realised that they could help each other on their revenue targets, they could make common cause on issues at partner board meetings on which they had never previously co-operated.

Third, and perhaps the most straightforward change to make in your behaviour is to reframe your purpose, strategy and behaviour plan – if you have one – so that you have zero tolerance for being bullied or, indeed, bullying. By this I mean you make this behaviour as non-negotiable as you do with other behaviour decisions such as never behaving in a racist manner.

The respect you extend to others should be extended to yourself. You deserve not to be bullied as a matter of principle. If your purpose excludes living in fear, as it should, then your strategy and behaviour plan should support that objective. You might be surprised to find that your colleagues are more ready than you think to support you. Why not ask them?

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