When the Chair Is a Bully: Part I
by Rick Brenner
Most meetings have Chairs or "leads." Although the expression that the Chair "owns" the meeting is usually innocent shorthand, some Chairs actually believe that they own the meeting. This view is almost entirely destructive. What are the consequences of this attitude, and what can we do about it?
Gregory B. Jaczko, the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). On May 21, 2012, he announced his resignation pending the confirmation of a successor. His resignation comes at the end of a tumultuous tenure, marked by bitter disputes between the Chairman and the other four commissioners, who have repeatedly accused the Chairman of using bullying tactics. Much of the discord centers around regulatory issues pertaining to safety, especially issues related to possible lessons learned from Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Jaczko has been advocating for stronger safety regulation, and the other four commissioners have generally opposed this position and worked to delay action on Jaczko's proposals. All this is carefully detailed in "Regulatory Meltdown: How Four Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners Conspired to Delay and Weaken Nuclear Reactor Safety in the Wake of Fukushima," a report prepared by the staff of Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat representing the seventh district of Massachusetts.
The situation provides an excellent example of the complexities of dealing with bullying. As explained in Markey's report, the divisions among the commissioners trace to political influence by the nuclear industry on the four commissioners who oppose Jaczko's positions. The tactics they have used in opposing the Chairman might well be considered bullying themselves. They include deception, ridicule, and blatantly false allegations of bullying.
When preparing a case to support a charge of bullying by a Chair of a meeting, be aware that the charge of bullying can be lodged against the accuser as well, and such counter-charges are probably inevitable. It is essential that targets preparing such cases take great care not to create vulnerability by providing any evidence at all that they have engaged in conspiratorial bullying themselves. Photo courtesy U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Usually, when we say that Chairs "own" meetings, or when a Chair describes a meeting as "my meeting," we understand that the Chair is responsible for the meeting's processes, including making decisions, inviting attendees, setting agendas, and much more. Certainly, chairing a meeting is a hefty responsibility.
But in most cases, contributing insight and contributing to decisions are important responsibilities of attendees. When the Chair doesn't feel that attendees have these responsibilities, trouble looms. Some Chairs behave as bullies, injecting personal views so forcefully into meeting processes that they actually degrade the quality of the meeting's outcomes. Here's Part I of a collection of indicators of this kind of trouble.
- Experiencing opposition as a challenge to the Chair's position
- Although this (usually) erroneous interpretation of opposition doesn't in itself constitute bullying, the bully Chair uses it to justify personal behavior that he or she would otherwise regard as bullying. In effect, the bully Chair adopts the view that challengers have made the Chair's outrageous behavior necessary.
- Log these incidents in detail. Each one in itself might seem inconsequential, but a clear pattern can provide strong evidence for a charge of bullying.
- Ridiculing or retaliating against those who express alternative views
- Ridiculing or retaliating against meeting attendees who disagree with the Chair is clear evidence of bullying. Both actions are primarily intended to cause harm, rather than to persuade anyone of the merits of the Chair's position.
- Log these incidents, especially if one or two people are repeatedly targeted. Since attendee witnesses who aren't themselves targets have the greatest credibility and thus the greatest potential for effectively ending the bullying, they also have the greatest responsibility for capturing this information and presenting it to responsible authorities.
- Killing messengers from time to time
- Those who present unfavorable but factual news are sometimes metaphorically "killed" by the bully Chair. They're attacked even though the information they're providing is demonstrably factual. In this way, the bully Chair can eliminate from the discussion any data that presents difficulties for the Chair's views. See "Never, Ever, Kill the Messenger," Point Lookout for November 7, 2001, for more.
- The indirect consequences of killing messengers are perhaps more destructive than the Ridiculing or retaliating against
meeting attendees who disagree
with the Chair is clear
evidence of bullyingattacks themselves. Those who witness the killing of messengers often conclude that presenting facts that the Chair views as unfavorable can be a career-dangerous act. Many will withhold such information in the future, which elevates the risk that the meeting might adopt mistaken courses of action. These incidents, too, should be logged, because killing messengers is a performance issue for any meeting Chair, bully or not.
These last two indicators exemplify overt bullying by the Chair, motivated by the Chair's experiencing opposition as a challenge to authority. In the next two installments, we'll examine more sophisticated bullying tactics. First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
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See also Conflict Management and Effective Meetings for more related articles.
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