After fighting her way in to a tough industry, this writer found herself belittled and marginalised. Later, she was accused of similar behaviour. Are women too hard on each other – or do we need to toughen up?
'If you haven’t met her yet, you probably will at some point in your career. She is the boss or colleague who marginalises you, shows marked preference for your peers, puts you down in public, excludes you in meetings and criticises your work. She bullies you.
And if she does, you wouldn't be alone – more than one third of us have been bullied in the past six months, more than double the pre-recession figures.
I’m an expert in the subject because I have worked for her and been her.
Playing both roles in a bullying saga taught me plenty about myself, good and bad. But the greatest lesson learned is that, although a story typically has one narrator, there are always two sides to it.
So whether you are the unhappy victim or the unwitting villain in your workplace drama, you might find my story enlightening.
My experience of being bullied is fairly typical. Me: an inexperienced department head (features editor on a magazine, managing two writers). Her: my new editor, who clearly thought I was rubbish. I say ‘clearly’ because two weeks after she started, I overheard three colleagues discussing what she had said to them about me (‘not up to the job’ and ‘doesn’t get it’ cropped up, as I remember).
The problem was, she had made up her mind about me before she got her feet under the desk. I know this because on her first day, a freelance writer emailed her to say she was sending me feature ideas. My boss told her not to bother as I wasn’t any good. Later, she accidentally forwarded me the email exchange.
She never discussed my performance with me or how to improve it. Instead, she told everyone to simply bypass me. She excluded me from meetings and encouraged my team to re-edit my work. I responded by trying ever harder to impress her, which failed partly because my confidence was in tatters and partly because it’s impossible to do your job if your colleagues won’t work with you.
After several months, in the first and only meeting we had about ‘me’, she told me I was wrong for the job and a terrible people manager. We agreed there and then that I would leave.
Fast-forward five years: I discovered I was a bully, ironic given I was, by then, the editor of a young women’s magazine, which focussed a great deal on fighting bullying.
A woman called Polly had written in to an advice column in a women’s magazine I happened to be reading that day, to complain about the way her boss favoured her colleagues, criticised her work and undermined her. Immediately – and not entirely comfortably – I recognised some of my own behaviour in the letter. There was a member of my staff who, I was sure, felt I treated her in this way and this made me determined to renew my efforts to nurture her.
I called my deputy editor into my office to show her the feature and discuss ways in which I could renew my efforts to nurture this woman. As I spoke, I noticed my deputy’s face frozen into an expression of polite ambiguity. ‘Oh for God’s sake, this isn’t actually her, is it?’ I asked. Her face remained frozen. ‘This IS her! She wrote to another magazine about me?’
I felt mortified, not least because ours is a small industry – so despite the fake name, everyone on that magazine will have known exactly who ‘Polly’ and I were. But my primary response – and I hope this shows I am not an unkind person or a terrible boss – was sympathy for my employee. I wasn’t angry – I just felt so sorry for her. I understood why she felt marginalised, criticised and unappreciated and knew full well how horrible that was. I resolved to double my efforts to encourage her.
Here’s the thing though: despite both Polly and I feeling bullied by our bosses, I now think that neither of us really were.
Let me explain. First up, my ‘bully’s eye view’. Polly was, in many ways, brilliant at her job. I promoted her because of her creativity but, in doing so, broke my own cardinal rule. I expected my team to out-perform their job descriptions – my mantra has always been ‘Do the job you want, not the one you have, then when a vacancy comes up, I have to promote you’. Over the years, I promoted eight of Polly’s colleagues because they did just that. Polly, however, had not yet proven she had the maturity or ability to run her own team when I promoted her.
She was also, I soon found out, hell to work with. One of the challenges a boss faces – especially when running a huge team that includes recent graduates aged 20 and department heads in their 40s – is that different people need different management styles. I am blunt. If someone has a problem with me, I want them to say it straight, not weave it carefully into a sympathetic chat. If I am presented with a difficult task, I focus on solutions, not obstacles.
But some prefer a gentler approach, talking through obstacles to work out how best to overcome them. I knew the best way to handle Polly: endless praise. Every time a good story came through, I needed to say what a brilliant job she had done. Critical feedback needed to come wrapped up in encouragement. I had to be available for friendly chats. I needed to be more patient, which doesn't come naturally. If I did this day in, day out, we got on well. More importantly, I really did get excellent work out of her.
All of this was time-consuming. This may sound selfish, but it was draining for me as an editor with precious little time on my hands. And – I felt – completely unnecessary when managing a woman in her 30s. I expected her neediness to fade as her experience grew. It didn’t.
Polly also brought her personal life to the office – arguments with flatmates, friends and boyfriends, affairs (once, awkwardly, with a colleague), her life was one long drama. I told her when I promoted her that this needed to change. But Polly still cried at her desk over her personal life at least twice a week. I told her to take refuge in the bathroom, or my office, if she needed to cry, as it was unsettling for her colleagues. Nothing doing.
She regularly got wasted on wild nights out with the team she was meant to be leading. Not my style, but not necessarily a problem… except the nights inevitably involved drugs, sex or general drama, which blurred the lines between manager and junior. Some of her team liked her, sure, but few enjoyed working for her.
Two years on, nobody was happy about the situation. I didn't engage Polly in social chat – as I did with most of the team – because I didn't want the drama. I didn't sympathise when she cried in the office because I found it inappropriate. I didn't think she had a can-do attitude because, by then, she didn’t. Sound familiar? At the time, I didn’t correlate my behaviour with that of the editor who made my life miserable, but the results were the same.
Then she wrote a letter to a magazine about me.
So am I a bully? I beg the differences between myself and that editor to say not: I gave Polly a chance; lots of them, in fact. I never excluded her. I told Polly clearly what I needed from her and asked her what she felt. Maybe, though, she wasn’t comfortable telling the person who paid her wages to back off. Maybe I should have been clearer that she could speak frankly – although if a chemistry doesn’t exist between boss and employee, I feel the need to adapt lies with the junior. True, I did, eventually, discuss her with her colleagues – at first only when they brought their woes to me, but slowly I shared back. I shouldn’t have done that. It was wrong.
Yet I maintain that Polly wasn’t bullied. I have also concluded that neither was I; terribly managed, perhaps, and unfairly judged, but not bullied. My anger at my editor’s mistreatment of me distracted me from seeing that I was, in fact, wrong for that particular job. I may have performed terribly after she arrived, but I wasn’t doing great before she got there either.
By the time Polly left to go freelance, I was fairly immune to her feelings. Running a good magazine with a productive team was more important. In my defence, she went on to work at two other titles where I hear there were more tears, so it clearly wasn’t all about me.
And while I am tying up loose ends, you might be interested to hear I went on to hire one of my old team who’d helped my bullying editor to exclude me about a year after she had done so. We had a great time and became good friends. Some behaviour, I now know, is just a result of a specific environment. Things can change.
Then again, some people never do. The editor who picked on me moved on to run another magazine, where a friend of mine was working as a writer. He told me things were awkward. ‘She [the editor] asked me not to go through the features editor as she doesn't rate her, but the features editor doesn't know that…’
Books to beat the bullies
1. Mean Girls Grown Up: Adult Women Who Are Still Queen Bees, Middle Bees, and Afraid-to-Bees by Cheryl Dellasega (John Wiley & Sons)
Whatever your experience of bullying, Dellasega explores the issues intelligently from all angles and offers practical advice.
2. In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People by George Simon Jr (Parkhurst Brothers)
Sometimes the best way to beat the bullies is playing them at their own game – this book will help you recognise and tackle the tactics skillful manipulators use.
3. In the Company of Women: Indirect Aggression Among Women - Why We Hurt Each Other and How to Stop by Pat Heim, Susan A Murphy, Susan K Golant (Jeremy P Tarcher)
Women’s workplace relationships can be catastrophically bad or performance-enhancingly great. This book describes why arguments happen – and how best to avoid them.
Trouble at work? Struggling to resolve disputes with difficult colleagues? ACAS is a free, confidential helpline offering advice. 08457 47 47 47, acas.org.uk