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If enough people think you’re a bad boss, you are

A Fascinating case Research on the exercise of power within organizations has just come to its conclusion in the UK. Dominic Raab resigned as the country’s deputy prime minister and justice minister on April 21 after an independent investigation into whether he was a workplace bully found he had crossed a line. Civil servants who complained about him would find it justified. His supporters and himself argue that his departure sets an unhealthy low bar for being convicted of bullying.

Barrister Adam Tolley, who conducted the inquiry, found Mr Raab displayed “unreasonable and persistent aggressive behaviour” during his tenure as foreign secretary. Mr Tolley also concluded that Mr Raab’s style at the Justice Department was at times “intimidating” and “insulting”. Mr Raab may not have intended to annoy, but that wasn’t enough to get him off the hook: the UK government’s own website says bullying is “behavior that makes one feel intimidated or offended”.

The background to the Raab incident is unusual. The media attention is high, and the relationship between civil servants and British government ministers is also very particular. But the question of what separates someone who simply sets high standards (which is Mr Raab’s take on events) from someone who bullies is gaining interest in workplaces everywhere. For example, in a survey released in 2021, about 30% of U.S. workers said they had direct experience of abusive behavior at work; in two-thirds of cases, the bully was someone above them in the food chain.

It is difficult to read the report without feeling unexpected sympathy for Mr Raab. Despite acknowledging its anachronism, fear is a part of organizational life. Hierarchy empowers managers and empowers them to weed out underperforming employees. Highly motivated and demanding people are often the ones who climb the ladder.

Mr. Raab definitely is. Mr. Tolley describes a demanding boss: hard-working, pushy and direct. When he doesn’t get a direct answer, he interrupts. He doesn’t want to spend time rehearsing arguments that have already been aired. If he thinks the work is not up to the required standard, he will say so.

Mr. Raab has many of the characteristics of a desk lamp: he is bright, often scowling, and not known for empathy. But his motivation seems to be mainly to get better results. The investigation found no evidence that Mr Raab yelled or swore at people, or that he targeted individual public servants. Officers accused Tolley of making threatening physical gestures, whether it was loudly banging on a table or putting his hand in someone’s face to stop them from speaking, Mr Tolley was not persuaded. The “hand out” gesture was not as emphatic as claimed; the tapping was unlikely to “induce panic,” the attorneys wrote. If Mr Raab is a bully, he is not as aggressive as some media reports suggest.

Yet that sting of sympathy passes because the sting is habitual. The number and consistency of complaints against Mr Raab is itself evidence that something is wrong. The civil servants who talk about him have worked for other ministers before; they are not newbies. Despite Mr Raab’s protests that he was the victim of a “radical public servant”, Mr Tory believed the complainant was acting in good faith.

Mr. Tolley’s most astute observation is the realization that working life is not a series of discrete events, each of which has no relationship to the other. Some of the complaints about Mr Raab may seem innocuous on their own. It’s impolite to knock on the table or interrupt someone’s habit, but many bosses do it. Interrupting them in the middle of a meeting wouldn’t matter so much if he wasn’t the type to describe the jobs he receives as “totally useless” and “pathetic.” Bullying can be one-off, but more often it is gradual: Stress builds, anxiety builds, and an atmosphere builds.

Even if you think Mr. Raab has been unfairly labeled a bully, it’s hard to ignore another issue — his effectiveness as a manager. If enough people think you’re a bad boss, you’re a bad boss. If employees try to avoid you, you will have less available talent pool. Mr Tory himself does a scrupulously fair job and clearly finds the Deputy Prime Minister trying. He described Mr Raab’s approach to the investigation as “somewhat absolutist”. It sounds a lot like “he’s a total nightmare” as the British lawyer put it.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
What Are Good Office Perks? (April 20)
How to Be a Zoom Superstar (April 13)
The irresistible temptation of a family business (April 5)

Plus: How the Bartleby column got its name

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