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Solving Bullying in the Boardroom
October 2012

By Dr. Marty Martin

Imagine a CEO taking Imodium right before each board meeting and Tylenol after each meeting to soothe the frightening feeling of being terrorized by power-abusing board members routinely reminding the CEO, “You work at the pleasure of the board.” And even if the CEO is resilient enough to withstand this piercing pressure to please, his staff must wonder if they will become targets of the CEOs who pass along the misery down through the organization. To make matters worse, a few of the board members are making plans to oust the current CEO if their preferred candidate for a new senior executive role is not hired by the CEO.

Does the behavior of the board members in this vignette warrant the label “bullying”? This answer, in part, depends upon your company culture and the board culture; the two are related. In fact, company culture is often shaped by board culture. Resist the self-deceptive practice to say, “Our industry is different. This only happens in other companies. Our board is different because we only allow highly credentialed, seasoned, and talented people on the board.” All that may be true and yet a few of your board members may still demonstrate workplace bullying.

Board members are entrusted to serve as stewards of the organization and to keep the “best interests” of the organization as the first priority. This means that if any board member engages in behavior, whether consciously or unconsciously, that results in harm of any member of the executive team or distracts any member of the executive team from putting the interests of the organization first, then that board member has failed in serving as both an organizational steward and fiduciary.

Workplace bullying not only has a negative impact on the target of such behavior by board members but also those who observe or hear about board bullying behavior. The effects of dysfunctional governance “leak out” of the boardroom and contaminate the rest of the organization. Given these costs to the company and the target of bullying committed by board members, the natural question that follows is my board at risk of engaging in bullying behavior?

There are a few key risk factors which increase the likelihood that your company’s board will engage in workplace bullying behavior. Knowledge of these six risk factors will aid you in identifying risky behaviors, risky policies, and risky situation with the aim of seeking to prevent or minimize bully board members.

First, an autocratic leadership style is the strongest predictor of workplace bullying. This style of leadership as displayed by the board chairperson or members of the executive committee of the board is corrosive and will result in decreased engagement and innovation.

Second, a laissez-faire leadership style is also a strong predictor of workplace bullying. Power abusing boards will often force the hand of senior executive leaders to adopt a “whatever happens” leadership style out of fear of “stepping on the toes of board members.”

Third, the perception that bullying by board members results in improved senior leadership performance or organizational outcomes is yet another predictor. Of the six risk factors, this is the most challenging to counter and correct because “why mess with success.” As such, healthier options must be explored to achieve the same or higher levels of productivity.

Fourth, the lack of a formal written policy condoning such behavior by other board members is another predictor.

Fifth, during times of restructuring, downsizing, and mergers and acquisitions, there is an increased probability that board members will bully due to the increase in pressure and their lack of constructive coping responses.

Sixth, some individuals are downright mean and awry and when equipped with formal power, they abuse their power. All board members should first and foremost ensure that the board itself is operating as effectively, efficiently and ethically as possible and call out any board member, including the chairperson, if that individual engages in bullying behavior given their role as a fiduciary and steward.

As a member of a board, you should seriously consider putting into place three measures to prevent if not eliminate bullying board behavior.

First, formulate a policy regarding board conduct.

Second, implement a board evaluation process including self-evaluation, evaluation by the chairperson, and 360 evaluations by other board members and even senior executive leadership.

Third, at least once a year, hold a seminar or workshop on developing effective board member relations with a focus on each individual board member and the board as a high functioning team.

Returning to our original vignette but picture that the board read this article and made a commitment to change, then the vignette would read as follows:

Imagine a CEO being so excited about presenting several opportunities and challenges knowing that the board will bring forth their collective intelligence to maximize problem solving and decision making. The CEO, while preparing for the board meeting, tells the staff, “This is a great opportunity for you to showcase the wonderful work that you have done.” And, after the board meeting, a few board members agree to have a lunch where they will discuss how to better support the CEO and the senior executive leadership team.

In essence, what you permit as a board, you promote. President Harry Truman is known to have said, “The buck stops here.” These four words are powerful with respect to making sure that each individual board member and the board collectively demonstrate the best of what individuals and groups can bring to an organization rather than the worst. There are many things which are just part of doing business. Bullying board members is not a normal part of that. And it must end today.


Dr. Marty Martin, known for his state-of-the art content presented in an engaging, dynamic fashion, has been speaking and training nationally and internationally for more than 30 years. Currently, he is working on Taming Disruptive Behavior which will be published by The American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in late 2012. Dr. Martin is the Director of the Health Sector Management MBA Concentration and Associate Professor in the College of Commerce at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois and practices at Aequus Wealth Management. For more information or to contact Dr. Martin, please visit his website at

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