Articles

Are Anonymous Callout Channels A Good Way To Deal With Abuse?

March 24, 2021 - By Angela Donnelly, Director, Legitimate Leadership Canada, Bachelor of Commerce: Management

Bullying and abuse have been prominent in news reports about, among others, Priti Patel (the UK’s Home Secretary), Julie Payette (Canada’s Governor General), and Meghan Markle (the Duchess of Sussex). One question these cases prompt is: are anonymous callout channels a good way to deal with abuse?

I recently weighed in on an article in the Harvard Business Review, Time’s Up for Toxic Workplaces. The article suggested that companies should incorporate or strengthen anonymous feedback channels for employees to voice concerns and report abusive experiences without fear of retribution. Peer managers, superiors or HR could deliver the relevant feedback to managers, making it clear that the organisation does not tolerate this kind of behavior. Knowing that others disapprove may lead the perpetrators to self-correct, the article said.

I commented that legitimacy in the manager-employee relationship is at stake here. Focusing on empowerment of employees and simultaneously creating a leadership culture that places people and excellence at the core of the business will foster the conditions where civility and maturity thrive. Anonymous callout channels are damaging and cowardly ideas; one should rather be deliberately building courage and generosity in the system, to produce masters rather than perpetuate victims.

As I expected, there wasn’t overwhelming support for my viewpoint.

Most readers possibly think I have no idea just how horribly toxic leaders can be. But I do – I see the worst of it every day in my line of work. In fact, I probably only have “a line of work” because these individuals exist and persist.

Here are some of my thoughts on the Harvard Business Review article:

  1. Competency hierarchies (aka – organizational structures) are necessary and function optimally when power is legitimate and does what power is supposed to do – namely, enable the subordinates in the relationship. This is done by caring for them and helping them to grow. In the absence of legitimate power, all the leader has, at best, is control. Legitimize these relationships at all costs – it is worth the hard work!
  2. The integrity of the communication channel between the superordinate and subordinate in the relationship must be maintained wherever possible. Third-party intervention or surrogate-type relationships should be a final resort and only considered to retore the open flow of communications and legitimate power to where it belongs – within the hierarchy between manager and employee.
  3. It is seldom the case that these “toxic managers” are stealthily getting away with their behaviours. Generally, these individuals are well known to HR and management (some are among that group).
  4. Allowing this poor behaviour to continue shows a lack of courage in that individual’s immediate line manager. This line manager should be held accountable accordingly. Do not tolerate these individuals, no matter how much money their divisions are making. Manage the situation – the fabric of your culture is at stake here.
  5. The article suggested that abusive conduct by those in positions of power is not a competency problem but a moral problem and recommended increasing awareness and wholesale education of all managers about “all costs associated with abusive conduct”. This would be time-consuming and, frankly, insulting. As with all petty policies and controls, avoid instituting organization-wide measures to deal with a minority of toxic individuals. This is not a competency problem; this is a lack-of-accountability problem.
  6. The article says that “abusive behaviour can spread throughout the organization” and that it is “passed on”. We know that masters beget masters and victims beget victims, but they are not like viruses. Intent issues are very individualistic. But, yes, if there is no culture of excellence and accountability, poor manners are indeed bound to thrive.
  7. The article says that abusive bosses significantly improved their bad behaviour when they cared about their level of social worth, and the wellbeing of their employees”. However, it is the understanding of one’s intent which truly transforms behaviour – the realization that a shift from getting to giving demands a suspension of one’s self-interest. Requiring the good opinion of others (social worth) is perilous because the intent is still to get, and not unconditional giving.
  8. I am not a supporter of emotional language such as “abuse”, “trauma”, “destroy”, “harmful”, “perpetrator”, (or “toxic”, for that matter). I don’t think such language is empowering for anyone. The distinction between abusive managers and tough leaders often boils down to intent. To understand intent, ask yourself, “Who is the ultimate beneficiary of the interaction, the leader or the team member?” I have known many leaders who are tough and demanding. The distinction is whether they are doing this for their own gain, or because they recognize potential and want to develop exceptional talent.
  1. I am concerned that a post-modernist view combined with aspects of critical theory is creeping in to undermine the value of authority and legitimate power in the workplace. A generation of talented young employees is confusing authority, unfavourable feedback, and demanding expectations with truly damaging behaviour. Articles such as that in the Harvard Business Review relish the opportunity of throwing fuel on this fire.

I believe it is increasingly important to offer personal empowerment workshops that help employees navigate the personalities and social dynamics at work and in their everyday lives. These learning opportunities should be approached in a positive and empowering way that fosters a shift in intent from resentment and entitlement to gratitude and contribution. What the world needs now is legitimate leadership, underpinned by old-fashioned good manners, personal contribution, and resilience.

Angela Donnelly
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