Bad Management or Tough Love? CEO David Alterman Reflects on Workplace Bullying

In light of recent events regarding bullying in government departments, David Alterman examines the intersection of management and bullying and the importance of empathy, teamwork, and support in achieving better outcomes.

There has been a lot in the papers in the last week about bullying and the review undertaken into Dominic Raab’s behaviour in several government departments. The outcome as we all know is that having promised to resign if found guilty of bullying, when just two of the eight charges were upheld, he had to follow through.

He didn’t go quietly though, raising concerns about the threshold for bullying being ‘set too low’, setting dangerous precedents re the ability to give direct critical feedback.

Indeed, in The Guardian today Francis Maude published an article in which he reiterates ‘We need a much more robust culture, with less groupthink, more rugged disagreement, and the confidence to both offer challenge and to accept it. That includes accepting candid feedback.’

This is a politics free blog (promise) – so I wanted to set the politics and personalities to one side to understand what is going on here.

On the one hand we have a cabinet minister with tough decisions to make, working under huge pressure and expecting civil servants to act objectively and impartially irrespective of the questions being asked of them.

On the other hand, we have people management – and questions about the best way to motivate, inspire and support a workforce to ensure the best possible outcomes.

This is the piece that frustrates me. A government department is an extraordinary work environment – with cabinet ministers helicoptered into their jobs often at short notice, and so they are unusually dependent on a dedicated team of professionals in their department.

There is a place for firm direct management – ‘the building is on fire, get out now’. But those of us who have graduated over the years from ‘professionals’ to ‘managers’ have learnt (sometimes the hard way) that empathy, teamwork, tolerance and support generally yields better results.

Bullying isn’t just bad manners; it is bad management.