Are you a corporate bully?

corporate bullies

Beating bullies is often your toughest test. POWER dynamics are part and parcel of the C-Suite, we all know that. Very few people get to the corner office on the basis of their skills, good luck and charm alone.


There’s invariably a price. Sometimes it’s being complicit at other times it requires being an active participant in what can literally be a Game of Thrones.

You have to learn to manage the dynamics of power. But it exacts a toll that is too expensive to be paid. Or becomes something that has to be paid off in instalments for years to come.

Business leaders rarely speak about being bullied. There’s a reason for that. The culture in the boardroom is that if you want to have a seat at the table and enjoy the rewards, if you want to be different from the staff on the shopfloor, then you’ve got to put up with a different experience.

It is brutal. It isn’t as simple as a bully coming up to you at break and demanding your money before you buy a coke and a packet of chips in primary school. Or taking your pie after you’ve bought it. It’s often very subtle, but it is just as devastating as the playground version. Most of us can deal with a full-frontal attack. It’s when it becomes subversive and asymmetric. When whispering campaigns against you amongst your peer. Even worse if your subordinates in your teams, that it becomes exponentially harder to manage.

The worst is being forced to do something that you know is unethical, but it is still within your remit. There is a culture in many C-Suites of being part of a team that gets things done. If you can’t stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen. This is the prevailing attitude, which discourages speaking out. There are CEOs whose attitude is simply, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”.

Bending the rules

As a C-suite member or a senior executive en route to the C-Suite, you know what is expected if you want to get your seat at the table. So sometimes you end up bending the rules, to widen the loopholes to get things done. Sometimes, you are ending up breaking the rules to get the result.

When that happens, the self-hatred wells up after the dopamine rush of being praised and the serotonin of achieving the objective wear off. It is a lonely place to be. In fact, the managers and executives are often the ones being bullied the most, especially when the pressure is on.

There’s another group of business leaders who feel it indirectly, when the board room divides into cliques between the revenue generators and the operational people and the rest. All those vital back room executives whom the company won’t actually function without. Like human resources, finance, IT marketing and comms.

Derided as ‘cost centres’ and passengers, there are times in toxic excos when those executives are simply ignored or at worst told to stay in their lane and not offer an opinion.

And yet, those same bullying colleagues will have no hesitation in striding straight into your office to get you to sign off on their project if you are the CFO.  Or they will force you to greenlight the appointment of someone who is patently unsuitable if you are the CHRO.

corporate bullies

Toxic corporate tactics

It is not easy at the top and the double jeopardy for those who are bullied is that they are often not believed when they blow the whistle. Gaslighting, stonewalling and ghosting aren’t phenomena for love struck lonely hearts on dating apps, they are toxic corporate tactics too.

Someone who refused to sign off on their CEO’s project before it had gone through the normal processes is accused of being lazy and not doing their job, when blowing the whistle on the irregularity. There is a race, gender and age disparity between the two individuals. The whistle-blower lost their job, because no one would believe the CEO would have done what they were accused of.

There are many other cases like this. You have either read of them in the media, or you might have experienced them yourself. You will probably know too that after being forced to make the wrong decision or when it’s eventually found out and you pay the price, there’s double jeopardy on that too. This being the cost of your reputation.

Don’t compromise if you can’t justify it or live with the consequences. Don’t give in to bullies. As the African proverb reminds us when a coward sees someone he can beat, he becomes hungry for a fight.

Master and overcome the corporate bullies – you CAN

Learning how to manage the power dynamics properly in your workplace is one of the most important skills you can master because – as always – it’s not enough to get to the top. It’s being able to stay at the top without hurting yourself (or others) in the process.  It involves self-mastery, a determination not to run with the herd or give in to peer pressure. It means knowing your own worth and having principles that you won’t yield on. Everything that the boards of great companies should actually be looking for in people they entrust to run their businesses.

Lucia Mabasa expresses an expert opinion in this article

  • Lucia Mabasa is managing director of pinpoint one human resources, a proudly South African black women owned executive search firm.
  • pinpoint one human resources, an executive search specialist, provides critical c-suite, specialist and critical skills solutions across industries and professional disciplines, in South Africa and across Africa.
  • Visit IOL, to find out more or read her previous columns on leadership; avoiding the pitfalls of the boardroom and becoming the best C-suite executive you can be.


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corporate bullies