This week, the news media frenzy in the UK has been the resignation of Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, for bullying.
Mr Adam Tolley KC, conducted an inquiry for the Prime Minster after a series of allegations came forward about the conduct of Raab in a number of offices of state including the Ministry of Justice.
In response to the report’s publication, Raab wrote in the Telegraph that he was “setting high standards, improving quality control of submissions, chairing meetings with focus, probing advice and trying to stem the casual drift in delivery of key projects”.
Bullying is a subjective term, argues Professor Adrian Furnham, making it difficult to deal with. In his book Backstabbers and Bullies, he explains that “one man’s firm and directive supervision is another’s bullying”. This was certainly Raab’s response: that he was simply demanding high standards, with a classic ‘the ends justify the means’ kind of logic.
It’s been argued in multiple places that the prevailing culture in the civil service is akin to the hilarious character Humphries in ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ who was hell bent on thwarting the plans of his political masters. The other argument is that the civil service is full of snowflakes: easily offended, overly emotional and with an inflated sense of entitlement.
Even if we were to accept these scurrilous characterisations of the civil service, does this type of ‘demanding high standards’ pay off in the long run? Does a harsh form of leadership help people toe the line?
The research unequivocally says no.
The Brain Under Threat
The human brain is constantly scanning the environment for threats and rewards. It’s a basic human survival mechanism. We move away from threats, and we move towards rewards.
This basic threat and reward response evolved to protect us when we were living on the savannah; as evolved as we might think we are, our brain chemistry hasn’t changed very much in millennia. And the latest neuroscience suggests that our brain responds the same way to social threats and rewards as it does to physical ones.
When a person is working in an environment that their brain perceives as ‘dangerous’ it activates their threat system, and they lose the ability to operate from their highest self.
The part of the brain designed for executive functioning: the prefrontal cortex, is temporarily switched off whilst all our cognitive and physical resources are prepared for fight or flight. This means that all the insight, wisdom, and experience that we could draw upon to solve challenges and do good work, is hijacked. We don’t have access to our best thinking at the time when we need it most.
In his book, The Brain at Work, neuroscientist David Rock explains that for us to perform optimally there’s certain conditions that must be met: “your brain ideally likes to feel a sense of increasing status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness”. This SCARF model, he argues, could be used to good effect in business and organisational settings to minimise the sense of threat that some people intuitively feel when dealing with someone of a high status, like a government minister. Here’s how David Rock explains it:
“Many great leaders understand intuitively that they need to work hard to create a sense of safety in others. In this way, great leaders are often humble leaders, thereby reducing the status threat. Great leaders provide clear expectations and talk a lot about the future, helping to increase certainty. Great leaders let others take charge and make decisions, increasing autonomy. Great leaders often have a strong presence, which comes from working hard to be authentic and real with other people, to create a sense of relatedness. And great leaders keep their promises, taking care to be perceived as fair.”
Derailment: a failure to evolve to the challenges of the level and role
There’s now no excuse for engaging in the types of demeaning behaviour that may have been socially acceptable in workplaces 20 or 30 years ago. However much certain people in politics or the media want to diminish this as merely the bleating of ’snowflakes’, the tide on what’s acceptable in organisations has changed. Leaders who don’t change with it aren’t going to last.
Outdated ideas of how to motivate and manage for high performance are at the heart of many leaders’ derailment.
Adrian Furnham notes that “derailment has come to mean the demise of an otherwise successful business or political leader who seems to have too much of a good thing like self-confidence, boldness, or courage. Indeed, it is for those characteristics that they were often chosen. However, the strengths became weaknesses possibly because of the way they were overused or, in the first place, compensatory”.
This is a classic case of derailment. A leader who has not been sufficiently aware of their behaviour or has been unable to modify it until it has reached a crisis point.
Tolley concluded that Raab “acted in a way which was intimidating, in the sense of unreasonably and persistently aggressive conduct in the context of a work meeting. It also involved an abuse or misuse of power in a way that undermines or humiliates. He introduced an unwarranted punitive element. His conduct was experienced as undermining or humiliating by the affected individual, which was inevitable”.
Whatever you may think of this situation, it’s clear that no one wins.
Raab has lost a coveted role that he has worked extremely hard for. The civil service has been diminished by being dragged into a culture war, as some have tried to justify the situation by blaming the prevailing culture in ministerial departments. And perhaps worst of all, there are some people who have experienced a form of workplace bullying who may carry those scars for many years.
Furnham, D. 2015. Backstabbers and Bullies: How to cope with the dark side of people at work. Bloomsbury: London.
Rock, D. 2009. Your Brain at Work: Strategies for overcoming distraction, regaining focus, and working smarter all day long. Harper: New York.