Wrestling with corporate bullies

Corporate bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are sly and lurk behind memos or nefarious BCCs, whereas some get right in your face. And it's not always clear how to deal with them.

Corporate bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are sly and lurk behind memos or nefarious BCCs, whereas some get right in your face. And it’s not always clear how to deal with them.

whereas some get right in your face. And it’s not always clear how to deal with them.

Early in my tenure at Korn/Ferry, I arranged a trip to meet our top people in the New York office, which was the biggest and arguably the most important in our global network.

The head of the office invited me to breakfast, which I happily accepted. The meal was at his private club – a power move on his part – and he invited another senior partner to attend without telling me – an ambush.

Midway through the breakfast, the two began to critique a re-cent article about our company that had appeared in Forbes. The critique evolved into an assault – and it was personal.

Since I was the CMO and responsible for media coverage, they were essentially attacking my judgment and competence and they were not holding back. The essence of their message was along the lines of, "Who was the moron stupid enough to agree to this kind of interview?"

As the interrogation progressed, I realized I was standing in the corporate equivalent of a schoolyard at recess, getting pummeled by two of the bigger bullies in
the school. I began to get defensive and angry, but checked the emotions, calmed down, and considered my options.

It reminded me of a scene from The Terminator, when a computer screen pops up in the android mind of Arnold Schwarzenegger and offers him three choices for responding to a threat. So here were the options on my screen: 

- Offer an explanation. I could acknowledge and explain, and avoid direct confrontation with the two senior partners. 

- Diversion. I could distract, deflect, and try to steer the conversation elsewhere. 

- I could punch back.

I decided on option three. I was fierce, unapologetic, and fully confident in my response. I had information to which they did not have access. I leveraged that advantage to make it clear that they in fact had no idea what they were talking about. I punched them back right in the nose.

Fortunately, I chose the right response. I realized later that these two partners were simply welcoming me – New York style – to the firm and seeing what I was made of. It was a bizarre kind of corporate gang initiation – and I passed with flying colors. The two partners became my friends, confidants, and ultimately, big supporters of mine.

However, I haven’t always guessed right. At Nissan, I foolishly once took on an angry, criticizing EVP who outranked me and was intent on publicly scolding me. That was a situation where I should have taken option one. Instead I punched back against a more powerful opponent. It turned into an episode of Friday Night Smackdown, with me lying bloodied on the canvas.

It would be nice if someone issued a guidebook on how to assess and size up these situations, but that’s never going to happen. In fact, it would actually defeat the point.

We will never understand the finesse of corporate politics through a written document. We have to actually get slammed down to the canvas a few times in order to understand when to evade, when to distract, and when is the time to punch back.

We might get battered, bruised, and bloodied, but hopefully we get wiser along the way.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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