Girl power: are women the worst bullies?

When organisational psychologist Mary Sherry wrote in a national newspaper last month that female managers were far more likely to bully staff than male ones it triggered a large reader response – almost all backing her view.

Why are some women much worse bullies than their male counterparts?

One female respondent to Shelly’s article said: “Women bosses are worse bullies than men. I also agree with Sherry that usually they employ more insidious tactics such as isolating people and nit-picking in order to undermine the other person’s confidence.”

Another wrote: “Your article has provoked me to put down on record that the unhappiest years of my life were caused by female bosses. I was treated so badly that I lived in a state of fear for the last few years of my employment.”

And a third said: “I work for a government department and have been off work since late October due to stress and anxiety exacerbated by a two-year campaign by my female line manager. Women bosses are certainly worse than men at bullying.”

Sherry said the level of response was surprising but not the content. “During the work I have been involved in for the past 12 years all cases of bullying that I have come across have involved women as the bully, though I am certainly not saying that all female managers are bullies.

“I don’t want to say how many bullying cases exactly we have dealt with but it is certainly more than double figures.”

She said these cases show that female bullies rarely match stereotypical images of aggressive bullies who use physical intimidation and foul language to cower their victims.

Their approach is a lot more subtle and psychological. They nitpick and undermine through constant criticism which leads to those on the receiving end losing their self-confidence and becoming risk and responsibility averse.

So who are these bully-girl bosses?

In Sherry’s view they tend to be middle managers who are managing beyond their level of competence.

“For example when they are asked to perform at a certain level and don’t have the managerial competence to get the best out of people they may bully. I don’t think people actually decide to become bullies. It is because they don’t have the competence to fulfil their management role.”

And who, typically, are their victims?

According to Sherry the victim is rarely a new starter. They tend to have been employed for 18 months to 15 years. “A new female manager is brought in and undermines the person concerned by nit-picking and disempowering them.”

She said that although it sounds like she is banging her own drum she does not think internal HR departments are best at dealing with serious bullying cases, especially if they involve senior staff.

“It is very difficult for internal investigators to look into bullying cases,” Shelly said. “HR departments often don’t have the level of delicate questioning techniques.”

Nor is she a fan of befriender networks where bullying victims can seek advice and support from colleagues. “They don’t work. We have seen one company use a befriender programme and we told them `you are wasting your money’. They set it up for two years and no one used it.

“You cannot expect a progress chaser or admin clerk to become a bullying adviser.”

Sherry is a partner at Southport firm Asset Management Partnership which advises clients on preventing and eradicating bullying in the workplace. It runs a website, which features an online questionnaire where victims can answer questions about their experiences.

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