Beating bullies might be your toughest test

pinpoint one human resources CEO and director Lucia Mabasa. Picture: Supplied

pinpoint one human resources CEO and director Lucia Mabasa. Picture: Supplied

Published Sep 8, 2023


By Lucia Mabasa

Power dynamics are part and parcel of the C-Suite, we all know that; very few people get to the corner office on the basis of their skills, good luck and charm alone, there’s invariably a price, sometimes it’s being complicit. At other times it might require being an active participant in what can literally be a Game of Thrones.

You have to learn to manage the dynamics of power. But sometimes that can exact a toll that is too expensive to be paid – or in fact becomes something that has to be paid off in instalments for years to come. Business leaders rarely speak about being bullied. There’s a reason for that; the culture in the boardroom is that if you want to have a seat at the table and enjoy the rewards, if you want to be different from the staff on the shop floor, then you’ve got to put up with a different experience.

It can be brutal.

It isn’t as simple as a bully coming up to you at break and demanding your money before you buy a coke and a packet of chips in primary school or taking your pie after you’ve bought it. This bullying is often very subtle, but it can be just as devastating as the playground version.

Most of us can deal with a full-frontal attack, it’s when it becomes subversive and asymmetric; whispering campaigns against you amongst your peer or even worse your subordinates in your teams, that it becomes exponentially harder to manage. The worst is being forced to do something that you know is unethical, but which is still within your remit. There is a culture in many C-Suites of being part of a team that gets things done. If you can’t stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen, is the prevailing attitude, which discourages speaking out. There are CEOs whose attitude is simply, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”.

As a C-suite member or a senior executive en route to the C-Suite, you know what is expected if you want to get your seat at the table, so sometime you end up bending the rules, to widen the loopholes to get things done. Sometimes, you might end up having to break the rules to get the result. When that happens, the self-hatred wells up after the dopamine rush of being praised and the serotonin of achieving the objective wear off and that’s a lonely place to be in. In fact, the managers and executives are often the ones being bullied the most, especially when the pressure is on.

There’s another group of business leaders who feel it indirectly; when the board room divides into cliques between the revenue generators and the operational people and the rest; all those vital back room executives without whom the company won’t actually function, like human resources, finance, IT marketing and comms.

Derided as ‘cost centres’ and passengers, there will be times in toxic excos when those executives are simply ignored or at worst told to stay in their lane and not offer an opinion. Those same bullying colleagues will have no hesitation in striding straight into your office to get you to sign off on their project if you are the CFO or force you to greenlight the appointment of someone who is patently unsuitable if you are the CHRO.

It is not easy at the top and the double jeopardy for those who are bullied is that they are often not believed when they blow the whistle. Gaslighting, stonewalling and ghosting aren’t phenomena for love struck lonely hearts on dating apps, they are toxic corporate tactics too. Someone who refused to sign off on their CEO’s project before it had gone through the normal processes was accused of being lazy and not doing their job, when they blew the whistle on the irregularity. There was a race, gender and age disparity between the two individuals. The whistle-blower lost their job, because no one would believe the CEO would have done what they were accused of.

There are many other cases like this. You have either read of them in the media or you might have experienced them yourself. You will probably know too that after being forced to make the wrong decision – to curry favour or just keep your job – when it’s eventually found out and you pay the price, there’s double jeopardy on that too; the cost of your reputation.

Learning how to manage the power dynamics properly in your workplace will be one of the most important skills you ever master because – as always – it’s not enough to get to the top, it’s being able to stay at the top without hurting yourself (or others) in the process. It involves self-mastery, a determination not to run with the herd or give in to peer pressure. It means knowing your own worth and having principles that you won’t yield on. Everything in fact that the boards of great companies should actually be looking for in people they entrust to run their businesses.

So, don’t compromise if you can’t justify it or live with the consequences – and try not to give in to bullies. As the African proverb reminds us: when a coward sees someone he can beat, he becomes hungry for a fight.

* Lucia Mabasa is Chief Executive Officer of pinpoint one human resources, a proudly South African black women owned executive search firm. pinpoint one human resources provides executive search solutions in the demand for C suite, specialist and critical skills across industries and functional disciplines, in South Africa and across Africa. Visit to find out more or read her previous columns on leadership; avoiding the pitfalls of the boardroom and becoming the best C-suite executive you can be.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.