Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 25;   June 20, 2012: When the Chair Is a Bully: I

When the Chair Is a Bully: I

by

Most meetings have Chairs or "leads." Although the expression that the Chair "owns" the meeting is usually innocent shorthand, some Chairs actually believe that they own the meeting. This view is almost entirely destructive. What are the consequences of this attitude, and what can we do about it?
Gregory B. Jaczko, the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Gregory B. Jaczko, the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Com­mission (NRC). On May 21, 2012, he announced his resignation pending the confirmation of a successor. His resignation comes at the end of a tumultuous tenure, marked by bitter disputes between the Chairman and the other four commissioners, who have repeatedly accused the Chairman of using bullying tactics. Much of the discord centers around regulatory issues pertaining to safety, especially issues related to possible lessons learned from Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Jaczko has been advocating for stronger safety regulation, and the other four commissioners have generally opposed this position and worked to delay action on Jaczko's proposals. All this is carefully detailed in "Regulatory Meltdown: How Four Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners Conspired to Delay and Weaken Nuclear Reactor Safety in the Wake of Fukushima," a report prepared by the staff of Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat representing the seventh district of Massachusetts.

The situation provides an excellent example of the complexities of dealing with bullying. As explained in Markey's report, the divisions among the commissioners trace to political influence by the nuclear industry on the four commissioners who oppose Jaczko's positions. The tactics they have used in opposing the Chairman might well be considered bullying themselves. They include deception, ridicule, and blatantly false allegations of bullying.

When preparing a case to support a charge of bullying by a Chair of a meeting, be aware that the charge of bullying can be lodged against the accuser as well, and such counter-charges are probably inevitable. It is essential that targets preparing such cases take great care not to create vulnerability by providing any evidence at all that they have engaged in conspiratorial bullying themselves. Photo courtesy U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Usually, when we say that Chairs "own" meetings, or when a Chair describes a meeting as "my meeting," we understand that the Chair is responsible for the meeting's processes, including making decisions, inviting attendees, setting agendas, and much more. Certainly, chairing a meeting is a hefty responsibility.

But in most cases, contributing insight and contributing to decisions are important responsibilities of attendees. When the Chair doesn't feel that attendees have these responsibilities, trouble looms. Some Chairs behave as bullies, injecting personal views so forcefully into meeting processes that they actually degrade the quality of the meeting's outcomes. Here's Part I of a collection of indicators of this kind of trouble.

Experiencing opposition as a challenge to the Chair's position
Although this (usually) erroneous interpretation of opposition doesn't in itself constitute bullying, the bully Chair uses it to justify personal behavior that he or she would otherwise regard as bullying. In effect, the bully Chair adopts the view that challengers have made the Chair's outrageous behavior necessary.
Log these incidents in detail. Each one in itself might seem inconsequential, but a clear pattern can provide strong evidence for a charge of bullying.
Ridiculing or retaliating against those who express alternative views
Ridiculing or retaliating against meeting attendees who disagree with the Chair is clear evidence of bullying. Both actions are primarily intended to cause harm, rather than to persuade anyone of the merits of the Chair's position.
Log these incidents, especially if one or two people are repeatedly targeted. Since attendee witnesses who aren't themselves targets have the greatest credibility and thus the greatest potential for effectively ending the bullying, they also have the greatest responsibility for capturing this information and presenting it to responsible authorities.
Killing messengers from time to time
Those who present unfavorable but factual news are sometimes metaphorically "killed" by the bully Chair. They're attacked even though the information they're providing is demonstrably factual. In this way, the bully Chair can eliminate from the discussion any data that presents difficulties for the Chair's views. See "Never, Ever, Kill the Messenger," Point Lookout for November 7, 2001, for more.
The indirect consequences of killing messengers are perhaps more destructive than the Ridiculing or retaliating against
meeting attendees who disagree
with the Chair is clear
evidence of bullying
attacks themselves. Those who witness the killing of messengers often conclude that presenting facts that the Chair views as unfavorable can be a career-dangerous act. Many will withhold such information in the future, which elevates the risk that the meeting might adopt mistaken courses of action. These incidents, too, should be logged, because killing messengers is a performance issue for any meeting Chair, bully or not.

These last two indicators exemplify overt bullying by the Chair, motivated by the Chair's experiencing opposition as a challenge to authority. In the next two installments, we'll examine more sophisticated bullying tactics. First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: When the Chair Is a Bully: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesAre you being targeted by a workplace bully? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just USD 9.99. Order Now!

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Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

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Nobody else seems to be concerned about what's going on. You are. Should you raise the issue? What are the risks? What are the risks of not raising the issue?
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Bullying in meetings is difficult to address, because intervention in the moment is inherently public. When bullying happens in meetings, what can you do?
Gary Jones, Oklahoma State Auditor and InspectorWhen the Chair Is a Bully: III
When the Chair of the meeting is so dominant that attendees withhold comments or slant contributions to please the Chair, meeting output is at risk of corruption. Because Chairs usually can retaliate against attendees who aren't "cooperative," this problem is difficult to address. Here's Part III of our exploration of the problem of bully chairs.
An FBI SWAT team assists local law enforcement in New Orleans in August 2005The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityLook Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events?

See also Workplace Bullying and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Jolly RogerComing August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
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When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.

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