Confronting bullying on boards: how to get your colleagues to back you

boss and employee.

According to a recent Sunday Telegraph report, The Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh (RCSE) says there is an “endemic culture of bullying” in the medical profession. Research by the College found that one in six trainee surgeons are suffering “from battlefield-type Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. Fear “was forcing junior surgeons to cut corners”.

Boards, executive committee and function team members are no less susceptible to bullying behaviour.

Much of this behaviour in business results in a conspiracy of silence, even amongst businesses with in-house lawyers. For these General Counsel, their status as Officers of the Court does not prevent them from being subjected “to elevated ethical pressure”, as reported in a 2016 survey of 400 in-house lawyers by University College London.

The dire consequences of the abuse of power in all facets of life have recently come to light – in television, film, churches, sport, medicine, schools etc. – and their impact should prompt boards to act. But they don’t, because the people affected don’t come together to demand action.

If all trainee surgeons supported each other and refused to be cowed, as a group, the senior surgeons who bully them would quickly find that they can’t do their jobs without them.

In-house lawyers, bullied into silence by their corporate bosses, could form a tighter bond with each other and face down their oppressors.

Board members frequently humiliated – often by powerful CEOs, CFOs or Chairs – could stand up for each other at Board and ExCo meetings.

When I say this to clients, I’m told: “It’s easier said than done”. Indeed it is. It requires courage. Mustering courage is hard. But there are some small changes you can make in your behaviour, which can help.

First, improve your influencing skills with those whose minds and behaviour you are trying to change. In this regard, Professor Richard Thaler recommends persistence; knowing precisely the other’s point of view; having all of the facts; and that you try to intrigue the other party.

By this, according to Tim Harford in the Financial Times, “Prof Thaler realised that most of us are lazy. Most of us don’t want to think hard about our beliefs, or challenges to them. His solution was to make sure those challenges were simply too intriguing to ignore”.

One of my clients was a member of an ExCo, whose CEO was bright but had a short attention span. He was also given to the occasional ritual humiliation of his directors. My client noticed that those ExCo members who piqued his interest with ideas were the least humiliated and the most successful in pitching their proposals to him.

Second, find common cause with your fellows. When I ask clients – business leaders, lawyers or other professionals – why they don’t get together and confront bad behaviour, the answer I receive is that they are often too much in competition with each other to co-operate. But what if you and your colleagues realised the incentive in doing so?

Once I facilitated peace between two warring private practice lawyers on a partnership board. It turned out that, once they realised that they could help each other on their revenue targets, they could make common cause on issues at partner board meetings on which they had never previously co-operated.

Third, and perhaps the most straightforward change to make in your behaviour is to reframe your purpose, strategy and behaviour plan – if you have one – so that you have zero tolerance for being bullied or, indeed, bullying. By this I mean you make this behaviour as non-negotiable as you do with other behaviour decisions such as never behaving in a racist manner.

The respect you extend to others should be extended to yourself. You deserve not to be bullied as a matter of principle. If your purpose excludes living in fear, as it should, then your strategy and behaviour plan should support that objective. You might be surprised to find that your colleagues are more ready than you think to support you. Why not ask them?

7 Small Changes to Achieve Better Board Effectiveness, Conduct & Leadership

ChangeThese are the seven steps I use to facilitate better board effectiveness, conduct and leadership on main and operating boards, executive committees and senior function teams:

Step 1: Acknowledge uniqueness

You and your colleagues are unique individuals. No two board members are the same. If you behave as if they are you cannot expect to get the outcomes you want. If each board member is unique it follows that your board is unique. Why would you use generic processes for a unique situation?

Step 2: Understand uniqueness

At work, the components of your, and each of your colleagues’ uniqueness are their skills and experience, reputation and emotional intelligence. Whilst many share aspects of these, no two board members share the precise mix. Why, therefore, would you treat yourself and your colleagues as human capital assets?

Step 3: Understand emotional intelligence (EI)

The most important components of emotional intelligence are empathy, self-awareness and the ability to negotiate needs productively. All three are important. While organisations may perform well for a while without these in harmony in each director, research suggests that organisations that fail to foster these, often struggle to develop long-term capability. In which case, why would your board ignore individual EI problems, even if those colleagues with issues are delivering good results in the short-term?

Step 4: Understand the negotiation of needs

Experts tell us that if your ability to negotiate your needs productively and safely was frustrated in your formative years then you will have taken a decision to deal with that frustration in a manner that was appropriate at that time. However they also tell us that humans have a tendency to extend formative years decisions into adult life. Even those people who experienced little or no frustration in having their needs reasonably met in their formative years suffer when they encounter those that did or when they experience significant stress in later life. The productive negotiation of needs as between members of boards and teams is key to success. Why would your board not pay attention to creating an environment in which members’ needs can be negotiated productively, even if this involves painful confrontation of personal issues?

Step 5: Reveal hidden potential through small changes

Experts also tell us that no one escapes emotional pain. Everyone carries one outstanding emotional painful experience. By outstanding I mean more than all other painful experiences. We compensate for these in different ways but these strategies invariably hide our potential. If this is true, it means that your board’s hidden potential is more than the sum of the hidden potential of you and each of your colleagues. The route to revealing the hidden potential of each director is for each to negotiate small changes in behaviour with each other. In aggregate the sum of the small changes is greater that each in terms of their impact on board effectiveness and conduct. Conduct is observed behaviour over time. Why would your board not seek to reveal the hidden potential of each member over time?

Step 6: Share your personal purpose, strategy and behaviour plan

You and your board colleagues each have, or should have, a personal purpose or objective at work, a strategy to achieve it and a personal behaviour plan to implement that strategy. Some do this process intuitively; others plan it whilst others drift. The more these issues are shared openly between board members, the more likely it is that business purpose, and strategy and behaviour will be successful.

 Step 7: Make personal and business purpose interdependent

The tension between the personal purpose of each of your board members and the purpose of the business negatively impacts performance and the development of long-term capability. It follows that these are interdependent and if so it further follows that it is worthwhile paying attention to the interdependence of personal and organisational purpose. It also follows that not doing so increases organisational risk and reduces opportunities.

I use three well-known emotional intelligence tools to help directors implement these steps:

Tool 1: Feel/Need/Do?

Regarding specific issues or behaviour or exchanges at board meetings what do you feel?; what do you need in relation to that feeling?; what are you going to do to meet that need?

Tool 2: Are you selling or buying?

In almost every board interaction you are either selling or buying. Know which and know how.

Tool 3: Are you in Parent, Adult or Child mode?

In almost every boardroom interaction you and your colleagues will, at various times, be in Parent, Adult or Child mode. Do you know which you frequently occupy and when? Do you know how to get yourself and your colleagues into Adult-Adult mode?

The steps and tools above together constitute The Fenton Model® which is a registered trademark of Ciarán Fenton Limited.

Ciarán Fenton

October 2017

Fear culture: why every director should read ‘The Fear Culture’ chapter in Shredded


If your organisation uses any form of a “rank and yank” performance management system you should read ‘The fear culture’ chapter in Ian Fraser’s Shredded – Inside RBS, The Bank that Broke Britain.

Fraser provides directors with excellent arguments as to why your board should close down these systems.

First, he quotes American management thinker W. Edwards Deming who said that these performance management programmes result in “conflict, demoralisation, lower productivity, lower quality [and] suppression of innovation”.

Who on your board would push back on you if you quoted this?

Second, he cites Phil Taylor, Professor of Work and Employment Studies at the University of Strathclyde, who wrote Performance Management and The New Workplace Tyranny (2013). He says, “an argument can be made that these performance management practices are not merely unjustifiable on the grounds of welfare, decency, dignity and well-being, but they may also be utterly counterproductive…”

Try quoting that your next board meeting and see how you get on.

Third, he quotes Ron Kerr and Sarah Robinson, both Business and Management lecturers who said, “Within RBS itself, Goodwin’s domination was maintained by economic violence. RBS’s internal culture has been characterised as a culture of fear”.

Fraser writes that Kerr and Robinson “argue that the leadership culture at RBS was quasi-feudal, in that exploiting people’s economic dependence and destroying their economic power lay at its heart”.

Imagine quoting that at your next board meeting. Surely a slam-dunk argument for your board to say ‘you’re right, we’ll scrap our performance management system tomorrow.’

Of course not. You and I know that the proponents of these systems on your board are in no doubt about the arguments against them.

As early as 1991 Deming and others were arguing against them. But as Ian Fraser notes: “…this did not stop rank and yank programmes being adopted in the UK across both public and private sectors”.

In my own work facilitating boards and ‘off-sites’ I have heard senior leaders challenge these programmes only to be told that ‘we must have some form of measurement’.

It’s as if a totally discredited system is better than none, in their minds. A zero-sum-game. They cannot imagine, as many companies who have ditched these vile programmes can, that trust is all you need to ‘performance manage’ anyone.

But what if there’s no trust? Surely, your board will argue, we need a system to manage people who don’t ‘behave’?

Your answer to this is that the board doesn’t need a system, it needs to up its leadership game to help people be what they can and should be.

Yeah right, you say. It won’t happen in my organisation. And you’re right, unless you and the people in your organisation who agree with you get together and lobby for change.

It’s not about speaking truth to power, a phrase I’ve never liked. It implies that the powerful never speak the truth and those who want to speak the truth are invariably weak.

You are powerful. You are a director. Just do it.

How Leadership 101 could win the next election for the Lib Dems

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It is the party conference season and the political weather is dominated by fog. Political fog swirls as both main parties offer different solutions but neither explain precisely how they will execute them. Opaque is the new clarity.

Cynics might suggest they do not know. A kinder interpretation is that politics in the UK has divorced itself from the meaning of the word leadership and, instead, aligned itself with the word personality, which is a different matter altogether.

Leadership is about helping people to perform at their very best, even to their surprise. Personality is about individual qualities. The latter is about being, the former is about doing.

And so Mrs May and Mr Corbyn, described as the leaders of their respective parties, have advanced their positions on the key issue of the day: Brexit.

But neither has set out how they are going to create an environment in which their ministers will be able to deliver on the solutions they espouse.

This should worry us all, irrespective of which side you support. What are you going to say in five years time if the people you voted for fail to deliver on what they promised?

That is politics, you might reasonably respond. Whoever, you might add, expects a politician to deliver what they said they would?

In normal times this cynicism might be justified but we are not in normal times.

Not in my lifetime – I’m 57 – have I witnessed a political event so profound as Brexit. I was too young for the Cuban missile crisis, the next nearest in my view. You may argue that there were other more profound events but you cannot argue that Brexit is not a game changer.

For example as I write, Monarch Airlines has gone into administration partly because of the brutal competition in the short haul market but also because of the fall of the sterling. The latter was a direct consequence of the Brexit vote.

According to the Office for National Statistics the UK economy is now the worst performing economy in the G7. On the eve of the referendum it was the fastest growing.

Moreover, the polarisation in UK society has become much more pronounced since the vote. Of this fact there seems to be no disagreement.

But even if you feel that a certain amount of pain is inevitable and you are still convinced that Brexit is the right thing to do, surely you must care that the policies you support are executed properly?

Are you sure that this will happen? Just because you believe the Leavers, whether hard or soft, are right does not mean that you can be confident that they are capable of implementing those policies.

This presents an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats because they are neither burdened with the cult of personality nor the weight of excessive ideology. But they are a force in UK politics, no matter how weak.

My advice therefore to Sir Vince Cable is the same advice I give to all CEOs who are in a potential turnaround situation and that is to focus on Leadership 101.

I acknowledge that politics is not a business and Sir Vince is not a CEO, but the principles of Leadership 101 apply in all organisations and they are ignored at peril. Sir Vince should take three turnaround steps:

Step 1: Announce that he will not be the next PM but that he is launching a nationwide search for the most talented team of new Lib Dem MPs, one of whose number will be the Liberal Democrat Prime Minister in 2022. Sir Vince will act as interim caretaker.

Step 2: The new leader of the Liberal Democrats will focus on leading its Members of Parliament in parliament and not on attempting to lead anything or anyone outside of the House of Commons.

Step 3: The new leader will create an environment in which new and as yet unknown MPs will be supported to lead public service departments, excellently, and will communicate to the electorate how, precisely, that will be achieved.

That’s it. If Sir Vince carries out those steps his party will win, unless of course someone in the other two parties wakes up to the fact that they are ignoring Leadership 101 and beats him to it.