business team, superivsors

As a Supervisor, Are You Leading or Bullying?

(This is an updated version of a post I did in October 2012.)

“I feel like you’re intimidating and bullying me.”  These are the words of a female employee during a meeting with her male supervisor, who intended to set expectations with her. Taken aback, the supervisor started to question his behavior.

With stories of children being bullied at school and with differences between generations at work, it makes you stop and think about bullying in the workplace. As a supervisor, how do you know whether you are leading or bullying?

At work, a few employees will attempt to deflect responsibility and attention away from themselves, especially when a supervisor addresses a work issue. One thing an employee may say, whether they really believe it or not, is that you are bullying” them. It seems for some employees, no one – not even their supervisor – has a right to set or clarify expectations for their conduct or performance at work.

Also, some employees may use the word “intimidation” when describing what it felt like when they were called into their supervisor’s office to discuss a performance issue. Well, sure, it can be intimidating, especially for those who know deep down they’ve failed in their work commitment.  But that doesn’t mean the boss was indeed intimidating, purposefully or not, and it doesn’t mean they are a bully.

What it does mean is that the use and misuse of power and authority by supervisors is often at the heart of perceptions of bullying.

 Correlations Between Bullying Behavior and Leadership Style and Traits

 Your leadership style and other personality traits can make it more likely an employee will perceive they are bullied, even if your manner or behavior doesn’t cross a line (usually set by the organization’s standards of conduct). One study found that bullying correlated with all four leadership styles measured and that:

  • An autocratic leadership style was the strongest predictor of bullying observed by others;
  • A laissez-faire leadership style emerged as a predictor of self-reported as well as observed bullying; and
  • An unpredictable style of leadership, where punishment is meted out or delivered on leaders’ own terms, independent of the target employee’s behavior was the strongest predictor of self-perceived bullying.

(Hoel, et al, 2009)

In contrast to the autocratic leadership style, a more recent study found that a more democratic and communal leadership orientation may lead to fewer perceptions of bullying in the workplace. (Houghton et al, 2021).

 Distinguishing  Bullying and Supervisory Behavior

 According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is “repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees of an employee: abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage” or a combination of these. It is often a “systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction” that causes harm such as health issues, adverse employment actions, (i.e., demotion, termination, reprimand, failure to promote, etc.), or even constructive discharge.

Bullying behavior can include ostracizing or isolating, being aggressive or intrusive, minimizing, intimidating, criticizing, or spreading gossip about the target of their bullying. Often, a peer or supervisor will bully another employee due to professional jealousy, being seen as a threat to the bully’s social status to their ability to be in control, or being insecure or having low self-esteem.

To check your behavior as a supervisor, use the chart below to clarify bullying versus appropriate supervisory behaviors:

Bullying Leading as a Supervisor
During a performance review, the supervisor is intentionally biased or gives inaccurate feedback because they don’t like the employee even though the employee is a good performer. During a performance review, the supervisor shares honest, substantiated feedback with the employee, whether or not they like the employee as a person.
The supervisor deliberately excludes an employee from workplace meetings and activities for no good reason or for a concocted reason while other employees on the same team or in the same job classification are invited to attend. The supervisor includes an employee in workplace meetings and activities that other employees on the same team or in the same job classification attend, whether or not the supervisor like the employee and even if the employee is not the best performer.
The supervisor instigates, encourages, or fails to stop others from spreading malicious gossip, jokes, or rumors about an employee. The supervisor refrains from joking about, gossiping or spreading rumors about any employees, and addresses such behavior with other employees who engage in it. Instead of listening to gossip and rumors, the supervisors ignores it, or if warranted, follows up with the employee directly and privately, giving them an opportunity to give their version of the situation.
The supervisor pesters, spies, or stalks the employee with no business reason for doing so. The supervisor monitors all employees’ whereabouts and productivity if there is a business reason for doing so, and documents and addresses any issues of attendance or productivity privately with an employee, giving them an opportunity to give their version of the situation.
The supervisor criticizes or belittles the employee persistently or allows others to do so without saying anything. The supervisor speaks privately with the employee if there are documented conduct or performance issues, and gets the employee’s explanation during the conversation.
The supervisor applies undeserved or unwarranted corrective action or discipline to an employee. The supervisor addresses only work-related issues, supported by relevant information regarding a situation, including the employee’s version of events, before deciding whether or not to discipline an employee for workplace misconduct.
The supervisor consistently gives a good performer assignments that are beneath their position to create a feeling of uselessness. The supervisor holds all employees accountable to job performance standards and documents/addresses sub-standard performance with interventions such as re-training, job shadowing, or a performance plan.

Regardless of how you show up, the authority inherent in your position will automatically intimidate some. Still, as a supervisor, everything you do and say will be magnified 1000 times by that authority. That’s why it’s a good idea to become aware your own insecurities and the way you react when stressed. Your insecurity and reactive behavior could be sending unintended messages that employees interpret as bullying. Also, work with your human resources department to know how to address workplace issues with employees with professionalism and respect.

Want to plan out a tough conversation you need to have with an employee?  Download my Conversation Planner

Leadership Development: Using Your Fate as a Clue to Your Destiny

impactYou encounter leadership problems or challenges all the time. Did you ever notice that they end up being the exact circumstances you need in order to evolve as a person and a leader? You may have issues with people who don’t respond to you as you’d like. You might experience frustrations with initiatives that don’t go as planned. Whenever there is a “rub” that bothers you, it often shows you something about yourself now and who you can become. It is as though these leadership challenges are put in your path as part of your fate.

Fate: Past and Present

In Ancient Greece, the well-known mythology of the Three Fates explained why life unfolded as it did. Lachesis was the Fate who drew the lots, giving each person certain characteristics and conditions along with a plot line for their life. Clotho spun the thread of each person’s life into the larger tapestry of time, giving each human a “twist of fate”. And Atropos decided how each human life would end and presided at the finish to cut the thread of life.

Today, we often use the terms “fate” and “destiny” interchangeably, but these terms can be thought of as two different things. According to mythologist and storyteller, Michael Meade, “fate” is all of the limitations and challenges we encounter throughout our lives (conditions along the path); while “destiny” is our purpose or the ultimate contribution we make to the world (the destination).

Using Your Fate to Achieve Your Destiny

This distinction is key. Reflecting on your fate allows you to examine your past experience (your fate thus far) to maximize the impact you can have now while increasing your potential for achieving your destiny or potential.

So, if you find yourself repeatedly encountering the same frustrating situations, you could think of the irritation as your “fate” poking you to take a look at things more closely. Maybe there are characteristics you could change or evolve further. Maybe there are new ways of thinking that could emerge from those particular circumstances. Often in leadership, we are asked to reflect by looking inward to question our approach, to throw off old patterns, and to step into new learning that will better serve us and those around us.

When reflecting on your “fate” to date, look back on your experiences thus far and take notice of the following:

  • People who were hugely influential to you;
  • People who showed up randomly or “out of the blue” to provide guidance or assistance;
  • Odd or surprising twists that put you in certain places or positions;
  • Odd events that might not even make sense yet;
  • Themes that keep coming up (whether or not you’ve figured out what to do with them yet); and
  • Situations that, at the time, seemed negative, but that turned out best in the long run.

As you look backward, what sense can you make of any of it? What clues does this emerging story provide for where you might go next? What kind of support or new learning would benefit you as you forge ahead?


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with corporate leaders who want to enhance their leadership abilities to drive bottom-line results. Learn more about her at:

Leadership Development: What’s Your Destiny?

confidence, destinyAs you look at your own leadership development, have you ever had an inkling of where your life might take you? If so, you could say you had an insight to your destiny. It might sound far-fetched to some, but to others, there is an unexplainable “knowing” that helps us make sense of the world and to see where we might be heading in it.

Destiny in Mythology

In the Jewish mythological tradition, the Angel of Conception, Lailah, implanted each tiny soul in its mother’s womb. By the light of a candle, Lailah showed the incubating soul a preview of its unique role in life and what adventures awaited it in the world. Just before birth, Lailah blew out the candle. And as the newborn emerged from the womb, Lailah placed her finger on the baby’s lips. This caused the child to forget everything it learned of its life in the candle-lit womb, sealing the child’s lips shut. Thus, the story goes, your philtrum (the indentation running from the bottom of the nose to the middle of the upper lip) signifies the place where Lailah “shushed” you with her finger, causing you to forget the everything you had seen in utero as you came into the world.

Similarly in modern times, Carl Jung espoused the idea of the “collective unconscious”. This is a universal “soul” that includes inherited, pre-existing, unconscious instincts and archetypes that are shared by all humans. As with the myth about Lailah, Jung taught that we are all born with a forgotten knowing about our lives and the world at large.

The “fun” of all of this is to discover what we will become. After all, achieving your destiny wouldn’t be challenging if you knew exactly what it was. This is true of who you are becoming as a leader, too.

Fate Versus Destiny

Often the terms “fate” and “destiny” are used interchangeably, but you can think of them as two different aspects of your unfolding life. “Fate” defines the context and all of the constraints you operate under during your life. This include your family, your physical appearance and capabilities, the time period in which you live, where you live, the beliefs you acquire, your personality traits, etc. In contrast, “destiny” is the destination of your life. Think of it as your purpose or the ultimate contribution you are capable of making to the world. You have and will continue to experience the twists and turns of your fate along the way. But it remains to be seen whether you will achieve your ultimate destiny.

No matter where your destiny lies, the fateful experiences you have as a leader provide a fertile ground for learning what you need to know to achieve your destiny. The problem is, you must feel your way along, never really certain where everything will end up. As Michael Meade writes in his book, The Genius Myth, “Life must be lived forward but can only be understood by looking backward.” That is, every person, every encounter, every setback, and every success is part of your “becoming”. They point toward your destiny.

This is important because viewing your leadership trajectory in light of your history, helps make sense of who you are becoming as a leader. And knowing this, you can step more fully into the leader you’re meant to become.
Where does your destiny lie? Is your destiny directly related to your career? Or does it lie in another aspect of your life? Is your leadership role simply a twist of fate on the way to something else? Or is it your destiny?


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with corporate leaders who want to enhance their leadership abilities to drive bottom-line results. Learn more about her at: