The Boardroom Bully: How To Spot One a Mile Away



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by Tamara Paton in Interpersonal
boardroom bully

A board member interrupts colleagues in meetings and keeps talking until others demur. At coffee breaks, she is slyly critical of the chair’s leadership, often as a justification for her rough line of inquiry.

A committee chair ignores fellow directors’ attempts to put an important topic on the committee’s agenda. He belittles their contributions as superficial relative to the big picture he manages as chair.

A seasoned director sends text messages to the new board chair, second-guessing her leadership and demanding that she step down.

Please allow me to introduce you to the bullies of today’s boardrooms.

Bullies have evolved since our days on the playground. As grown adults, they are smart and manipulative, capable of looking benign as they tear people down.

So good at what they do, you might not be aware of the bully sitting beside you in your next board meeting.

The boardroom bully thinks they have all the answers

As I’ve written previously, effective directors ask questions from a position of genuine curiosity. They initiate and nurture generative discussion, rather than conducting a one-way interrogation.

This can only happen when a director will admit when they don’t know something and when they are incorrect. Best-selling author Donald Miller avoids manipulators, identifying them by their propensity to never be wrong.

“If I have one piece of advice it’s to never work, fall in love with or for that matter walk a dog for anybody who has a hard time articulating their faults or mistakes.”

I’m all for walking with a bit of a swagger. If one of your colleagues moves with an infallible strut, however, you may have a bully on your hands.

The boardroom bully rants

Seth Godin points to the “angry teenager” in our workplaces:

“The angry teenager believes that rage is always justified. He rejects the rational approach, replacing it with hot flashes of belief instead. Facts matter little when they can so easily be replaced by emotion. The angry teenager doesn’t want to talk through an issue, he just wants to yell about it. He doesn’t care so much about solving a problem as he does bathing in it, embracing it and wallowing in self-pity (loudly).”

The boardroom bully vents frustration, rather than investigating constructively. He asserts an idea with such volume, attitude and repetition that it appears true.

The boardroom bully sucks self-assurance from those around them

Normally, I act with such confidence that a friend and colleague calls me “The Taminator”. And I have never had trouble expressing myself. But within a year of joining a new board, I found myself hedging suggestions. Since when did I apologize for having a point of view?

When we tolerate a bully, we give our power away day by day. The erosion of power is so gradual that we don’t consciously perceive the loss. Perhaps we might complain about the bully to our spouse or friends, but we lack the feeling of violation that typically prompts direct confrontation.

The boardroom bully will surprise you

I once worked with a board in which a director used surprise to promote her agenda. Three hours before a meeting, the director emailed the board to propose a resolution that would muzzle the chair on a key issue.

The individual did not call the chair in advance to request room on the agenda. She emailed the board as directors were en route to the meeting and smugly waited.

It should go without saying that the boardroom is not a place for surprises. I’m not calling for rigidly scripted meetings, but the opportunity for constructive dialogue dies when someone feels blindsided.

Now that we can identify the bully, how do we proceed? Leadership coach Christine Comaford suggests that we reflect on whether the bully is seeking opportunities to matter, feel safe and/or belong. Once we know what she wants, we can satisfy the unmet need and end the cycle of tantrums.

Beyond that, I suggest reading this article by Comaford in detail and bookmarking it for future reference. While a bully may make us feel off-balance and weak, there are practical steps we can take to take back control, ideally with the involvement of the board chair.

Although ejecting the bullying director from the board is a tempting option, coaching is the best first option for everyone. Moving too quickly exposes the board to significant personal risk, largely because most D&O policies do not cover lawsuits between directors.

The first and most crucial step is to recognize when we are dealing with a bully. Once I see this clearly, I see every interaction through a new lens and change my own behavior to stop enabling the destruction.

How have you handled disruptive personalities in the boardroom? What lessons have you learned to keep boardroom drama at bay?

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The Boardroom Bully: How To Spot One a Mile Away

by Tamara time to read: 3 min