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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Zero tolerance for bullying


The British media have given prominence recently to allegations that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is a bully who intimidates those who work for him. It has also been alleged that some of his staff have briefed against Cabinet ministers with whom Brown disagrees. The government has dismissed these charges as fiction designed to boost opposition attempts to portray the government as dysfunctional.

Brown is widely known in Whitehall as having a foul temper. Lord Mandelson, in all but name deputy to the prime minister, has admitted that Brown feels "passionately" about issues. The number of staff asking for transfers from working in the prime minister's office is high and there do not seem to be many volunteers seeking transfers within the civil service to work at No. 10 Downing Street.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, whom it is well known that the prime minister wanted to replace last year with his protege, school secretary Ed Balls, said in a recent TV program that all hell had been let loose against him when he said that Britain faced an unprecedentedly severe economic recession at a time when Brown wanted for electoral purposes to show that the economy was improving.

All this could be dismissed as an electioneering storm in a tea cup. Brown is not the first prime minister to have a filthy temper. Any civil servant who has worked for politicians knows that some of them can be bullies and have perforce learned to put up with rude hectoring. It is not easy to stand up to political bullies who have the power at the least to demand the transfer of civil servants whose career may well be damaged by their failure to please their political masters. Junior staff may well feel particularly unhappy and traumatized by bullying.

We tend to think that bullying is essentially a school phenomenon, and that when people grow up they will be able to put bullying behind them. Unfortunately this is not the case. But we would be foolish if we thought that bullying was confined to politicians being beastly to their civil servants. Civil servants can equally be bad bosses. So can business men.

Bullying inevitably has serious effects on morale and consequently on efficiency. Good leaders know that bullying will damage rather than enhance performance. They need also to recognize that it can lead to potentially catastrophic misjudgments. Those at the top may not have the time or the inclination to read what is said about them in the media and may dismiss the accusations made against them as politically motivated and baseless. Political and business leaders inevitably collect around them spin doctors, secretaries and bag handlers who know that their future depends on their master. They become, like royal flunkies, flatterers who kowtow to their bosses and yes-men.

As a result their bosses never really hear the unvarnished truth. Nor are the counterarguments against the course of action that they want to take always properly exposed to them. They soon begin to see themselves as little tin gods whose every whim must be satisfied. Power has corrupted them.

History provides ample evidence of the mistakes that arise from the fear of the consequences of relaying bad news. German and Japanese staff officers and commanders in the field must have known by 1944 at the latest that Germany and Japan could not win the war, but no one dared to try to force the high command to face up to the unpalatable consequences of defeat. As a result millions were sacrificed because of individuals' fears of the personal consequences of telling the truth.

One element of bullying has always been to argue that conveying bad news demonstrates disloyalty to the organization. This is, of course, nonsense. A truly loyal individual will tell his or her boss the truth because only through the truth can the organization survive and prosper.

I do not know to what extent bullying has been endemic in large Japanese business organizations, but the emphasis on hierarchy and consensus must to some extent at least inhibit members of an organization upsetting harmony by admitting failures. Were these factors that caused Toyota Motor Corp. to tackle so late in the day the accumulating stories of product failure? Was this why the public relations response was so inept? Why did not the failures come to light earlier? Was this perhaps because there was no proper independent audit of the company's operations? Were there no outside directors on the board elected to keep the inside directors under scrutiny?

Mistakes in government in a parliamentary democracy are subject to scrutiny in Parliament and the media, and if government exceeds its powers by the judiciary. But they too depend on the information that they can glean. Governments inevitably try to keep damaging information as confidential as possible and to control how much and when information is given out or leaked.

The freedom of information act in Britain is disliked by many ministers and civil servants, and attempts are regularly made to prevent or limit release of embarrassing material. But there are fortunately independent bodies including the audit commission, the office of national statistics and parliamentary committees who do good work in preventing abuses.

Bullying in the workplace and the climate of fear that it creates are issues that need to be tackled seriously if abuses of power are to be kept in check.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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