The ease with which they finished each other’s sentences, completed each other’s thoughts was so graceful, seamless that they could have been sisters. They’ve worked together for years and as they sat on the couch in my living room, on that Sunday afternoon, they nervously fingered the agenda they’d brought.
It was a list of the issues they’d wanted to discuss, a list of potential solutions to their problem. They’d wanted feedback on their proposed solutions. They wanted to remain positive.
“Okay,” I said, “but before we go to the solutions, can you tell me about the problem?”
The eyed each other, paused. K turned to L: “Go ahead. Tell him about the article in the Times.”
An article about a rival organization had come out on a Saturday. L had read it and understood how the Times had positioned the rival as moving directly into their space, becoming even more competitive. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was how her boss would take it. She knew he’d go ballistic. But, drained from the years of withstanding his tirades, she finished her coffee and did nothing.
She paid for that coffee on Monday morning. The boss came storming into the office, blowing past all of L’s staff, and started screaming at her. He was angry that the Times had gotten it so wrong. He was angrier still that L hadn’t jumped all over this “problem” and alerted him over the weekend. He was angriest that his board members were concerned and had emailed him. He had been unprepared and he was furious.
Of course this wasn’t the first time. It was a long-standing pattern. But K and L wanted to be strong women. They didn’t want to complain. They wanted to find a solution. They wanted to see what I could help them dream up in terms of changed structures or changes in the way they respond to get their boss to stop yelling.
I said, “Other than in case of fire, there’s no excuse for yelling.”
They were shocked. I repeated my line, adding, “If a friend came to you to tell you that their spouse was hitting them, would you sit with them and concoct ways to make sure the spouse didn’t get angry? Abuse is abuse—plain and simple.”
We’ve all worked with bullies and, unfortunately, in the business of early-stage businesses—where so many companies are run by founders and funded by investors—there are a lot of bullies out there.
I was 13. Living in Gravesend, Brooklyn. My bully was named Sal Quartucci. He was a bit of a manic, hyper Chihuahua-type of kid He’d hope around, spit out his ideas for cool things to do, and try to get you to agree with him. One summer night, we were hanging out in front of Sts. Simon and Jude church on Avenue T when Sal got a bright idea. He wanted to cross McDonald Ave. to “beat up the Jews.” We lived on Italian side of the avenue and there was a fairly large community of Orthodox Jews who lived on the other side.
I was disgusted. I was afraid. I was pissed. Mumbling something about the whole thing being stupid, I turned to go home. Sal leapt in front of me, calling me a faggot, a pussy, for not wanting to be up some old Jewish guys. I pushed past him and he ran in front of me. Again, goading me, hounding me. Suddenly, scaring the crap out of myself, I grabbed his shirt, threw him down on the ground, punched him the nose. I can still hear the crack and still see the blood on my hand. Our friends pulled me off him and I ran home, shaking.
I thought of Sal as K and L told me of the bullying, the screaming, the berating they’d withstood for more than ten years. Part of me wanted to deck their boss but I searched my head, my experience, my heart for advice on how to respond to them.
I then thought of M.
M and I started working together only a few weeks ago. At the December board meeting, one of his board members—his core investor—told him his job was on the line. This investor had put a few hundred thousand dollars into the company 18 months before. It was a first round, and it’d be combined with some friends and family money. This was M’s first business, his first time as a CEO.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about an investor or director expressing their view that the company may be failing, that the CEO may be failing. Indeed, their implicit responsibility is to identify problems in advance.
But what made this bullying was the style. No warning. No discussion. In fact, the month before the same director had told M that he was the best first-time CEO he’d yet worked with. It was the whiplash that was so troublesome.
In our first session, M and I worked through some of his options. When he called for his second session, he surprised me.
He’d gone to lunch with the director and confronted him.
“When you said that to me, “ he reported he told him, “It had the opposite effect of what you’d wanted. Instead of focusing me, and challenging me, you scared me. All I could think about for weeks was what a terrible job I was doing. How does that help our shareholders?”
I was thrilled. “What’d he say?” I asked.
“He apologized. He told me I was right. And then we started talking about the challenges to the business model.” In the end, confronting the director changed the whole dynamic.
A few years ago, a VC friend of mine called me about one of his portfolio company CEOs. The young man is brilliant, innovative, brash and terrific at fund-raising. In some ways, a VC’s dream but he’s also unpredictable, impulsive and a screamer.
I sent the VC a copy of Michael Maccoby’s HBR article, Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons.
“That’s him,” the VC emailed me, “that’s the CEO. What do I do?”
Maccoby recommends getting the leader a “trusted confidante,” someone who can pierce the narcissism with a straightforward “Cut the shit out.”
I shared the suggestion and added that this guy could use coaching—probably even therapy.
K and L sat quietly as I talked about possibly talking to the boss (as M had done). I suggested trying to engage a board member—we rejected that thought because the boss is so paranoid.
I suggested the Maccoby’s “trusted confidante.” The guy had fired everyone who could play that role.
I suggested trying to implement 360-degree reviews so the board—which is no doubt fully aware of this guys antics but for a variety of reasons unwilling to confront him on his behavior—would have no choice but to deal with it.
In the end, though, I was frustrated. I had little to offer them. I could counsel them, help them get through the week, help them deal with the residual fall out of these tirades but there was nothing they could do to change this guy’s behavior entirely. They could build little coping strategies but they were not going to change this guy.
As they got up to leave, they thanked. ‘This was so helpful,” one said.
“Why?” I asked. “We didn’t really change anything.”
“But we did,” they explained. “You helped us realize this isn’t our fault.”
I realized then beyond making dysfunctional organizations more dysfunctional, beyond getting in the way of actually executing on the business at hand, the true cost of bullying is the damage it can do to one’s self perception. And that’s the real tragedy.