Organizational Bullies: A Follow-Up

In my last post, I presented the hypothetical case of a program manager who is a bully and how that person’s behavior might negatively influence the morale of a public health agency. Adam Grant, PhD, an organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of Business, captures many of the traits I was trying to express in his description of takers. Takers not only poison a work culture, but evidence suggests they negatively affect a business’ bottom line.

In an interview with Krista Tippett, during the program On Being, Professor Grant described takers as, “…people whose default is to try to get rather than give. So their goal is to come out ahead in every interaction. They want to claim work that’s interesting, visible, and important, leave the grunt responsibilities for everyone else, and they tend to feel entitled to the lion’s share of resources and credit. Even when they didn’t do the majority of the work.”

Professor Grant, who authored the book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, says that when takers win, someone else usually loses, and that they rise in organizations by being fakers. Professor Grant’s description of how they survive is much more succinct than my own. He states that takers kiss up [to their superiors] and kick down [to their peers and subordinates].

Professor Grant points to research showing that takers negatively affect companies’ bottom lines. In a 2004 study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Dunlop and Lee examined whether organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) and workplace deviant behavior (WDB) were related to measures of business unit performance in a chain of fast-food restaurants. OCB was described as voluntary individual behavior that promotes overall organizational efficacy. An example of OCB is helping colleagues with their duties. WDB is voluntary individual behavior that violates organizational norms and threatens the well-being of the organization or its members. Examples range from spreading rumors to sabotaging the company. Dunlop and Lee found that WDB was negatively associated with both subjective and objective measures of business unit performance. That is, the presence of deviant employees hurt the performance of the business as a whole.

In a 2014 interview for McKinsey and Company, Professor Grant stated that, “The negative impact of a taker typically exceeds the positive impact of a giver by a multiple of two or three to one. You find that it’s pretty easy for one taker to be the bad apple that spoils the barrel.” Professor Grant suggests that one way for organizations to screen out takers during the hiring process is to seek out references from their peers and subordinates. He says that takers work hard to have powerful people think well of them, and therefore, give former superiors as their references. Takers, however, tend to let down their guard with their peers and subordinates and show their true nature.

This approach could also be used for 360-degree performance appraisals in which feedback is obtained from the taker’s superiors, peers, and subordinates. But please, do not—as I witnessed in one agency— put one of the taker’s staff in charge of the process. Talk about putting the fox in charge of the hen house! Outside, independent reviewers are most likely to conduct fair 360-degree appraisals.

For those public health leaders who may not be motivated to rid their agencies of bullies to improve employee morale, consider doing so to improve your bottom line. And public health does have a bottom line. It’s in the population health benchmarks to which public health leaders and agencies are now being held accountable and against which the value of public health practice will be measured.

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