With Martin G. Moore

Episode #245

Drive For Performance? Or Bullying? Sometimes, it’s a fine line…

I’m a vocal advocate of strong leadership: the need to stretch people to achieve extraordinary performance, with a single-minded focus on value creation (bearing in mind, of course, that value comes in many different forms: it’s not just financial results).

Recently, we’ve seen two cases from opposite sides of the world in which the stated drive for improved performance has resulted in serious allegations of bullying.

The first, is Dominic Raab, the UK’s Deputy PM, who was forced to resign after allegations of bullying were raised by some of his public sector departmental staff, and the second is an unfair dismissal lawsuit brought by a former employee of Myer, Australia’s largest department store chain.

Each of these relies on interpretation of the events on which the allegations are founded. And even though it can often be a case of “he said / she said”, in both these instances there’s no shortage of witnesses.

But did these cases genuinely involve bullying, or were they simply examples of strong leaders managing people who weren’t doing their jobs to the required standard?

I begin today’s episode with a little revision on what strong leadership really is, and then I unpack these two specific cases to examine the fine lines that sometimes exist between performance drive and bullying.

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Episode #245 Drive For Performance? Or Bullying? Sometimes, it’s a fine line…

We released a really important episode early last year. It was Ep.182: What is Strong Leadership? The subtitle was, “Taking people where they ought to be”. This was a reference to one of my favorite quotes from former First Lady of the US, Rosalynn Carter, who said,

A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but where they ought to be.”

I love this quote! It’s really easy to take people where they’d go anyway, if left to their own devices. But how do you get your people to visualize the alignment between what’s best for the organization, and what’s best for their individual self-interest, because they rarely align in the first instance. That’s a real challenge for even the best leader skills.

This episode is so foundational to improving your leadership performance that it merits the investment of 20 minutes of your time. But, just to summarize the high points and get you all on the same page, let me go through the key concepts of this episode.

There’s been such a seismic shift over the last few years, to talking only about virtuous leadership attributes, that you might believe that leadership is only about one thing: supporting every individual’s journey to becoming the best version of themselves.

Well, look, that’s all well and good, but it’s not what you’re paid to do. As a leader, your job is to deliver value for your organization. And as I said, it’s not just financial value: creating a safer environment for employees creates value; building market intelligence that allows you to better understand your customers or competitors, well, that creates value; investing profits back into the communities in which you operate creates value.

Your job as a leader is to work out what value means in your context and then pursue that with a single-minded focus. But, because we’ve been caught in this tsunami of sentiment on noble leadership attributes, we could be forgiven for thinking that to lead well, we just have to be more humble… and fallible… and transparent.

That’s clearly not working!

People are more dissatisfied, unhappy, and entitled than they’ve ever been. No one seems to be really winning this game at the moment. So, when I advocate my starting position for this, which is to introduce a brand of strong leadership focused on results and lifting people to achieve real performance, impact and self-esteem, I would really hate that to be confused with the dark side behaviors that poor leaders and bullies exhibit.

Poor leaders often dress up their ineptitude and callousness as strong leadership when, in reality, they’re nothing more than stand over tactics, using outdated command-and-control techniques.


In my world, strong leadership isn’t about improving financial results, regardless of the human and social cost required to do so. It isn’t aggressive, older, white males dominating their weaker team members. It isn’t the command-and-control style leadership—”do what I say and don’t question me”. It isn’t the inappropriate use of positional power. It isn’t confrontational posturing. It isn’t making decisions unilaterally without heed to the experts who might help you make a better decision. It isn’t demanding unquestioned loyalty, regardless of the situation. It isn’t showing frequent displays of displeasure and anger. And it certainly isn’t a lack of caring, understanding, or empathy for others.

This is simply bad leadership, by any measure. But the leaders who use these approaches often don’t even know they’re doing it. “I’m just a strong leader,” you’ll hear, “I have high standards for performance and I make no apologies for that.” Don’t be fooled by this: sh!t leadership is sh!t leadership, in any context.


So, let me just cover the things that I believe truly define strong leadership. Remember, strength doesn’t come from aggression–it comes from calmness and balance. Just ask anyone who practices martial arts at a high level: being strong is very different to being tough and overbearing.

  • Strong leaders balance compassion with an unyielding commitment to results, standards and performance, both at the individual and the team level.

  • Strong leaders control the huddle. Now, forgive my departure into American football, I just can’t help myself. The NFL draft starts today, which signals the ramp up to the pre-season. The point I’m making is that leaders know what to say to their teams at any given point, in order to refocus them and get them back on track to winning performance.

  • Strong leaders remain closely connected to their people. Unless you know each of your people individually, it’s impossible to help them to bring out their best performance.

  • Strong leaders have boundless empathy. Now, here’s an interesting paradox, it takes enormous strength to have boundless empathy, and of course, to do so without letting it degenerate into sympathy. To sit with someone and genuinely connect with them in a meaningful way… to feel their fears, anxieties, pain, and confusion. Only the strongest leaders can resist succumbing to the temptation of dismissing people’s feelings as unimportant or even worse, ignoring them altogether. It’s just so much easier to tell people what to do, isn’t it?

  • In almost every case, strong leaders take accountability. When things go wrong or when seemingly insurmountable challenges face the organization, strong leaders stand up, they face into it and they say, “I’ve got this.” They don’t blame others for problems or failures–they step into the vacuum that weak leaders leave and they fill it with purpose, courage, and a steely resolve.

  • Strong leaders demonstrate courage when dealing with those above. They don’t just nod and smile and agree with whatever the boss says. They fight vigorously and selflessly for the best outcome and for the principles and values that the organization has said it wants to uphold.

  • Strong leaders stand up when it costs them the most. When crises occur, when things go wrong, when mistakes are made, when the chips are down, when the personal risk of an adverse outcome is at its highest, that’s when the great leader is at their strongest. They have an incredible level of resilience, that grace under pressure that we all should aspire to.

  • And of course, strong leaders take people where they ought to be.

BRITISH DEPUTY Prime minister forced to RESIGN

Let’s talk about Dominic Raab. According to the Economist’s Bartleby column, which is one of my favorite weekly reads, an independent investigation into allegations of workplace bullying found that Raab had crossed a line–a line that Raab himself says, sets an inappropriately low bar for what constitutes bullying.

The independent barrister who ran the investigation found that Raab displayed “unreasonably and persistently aggressive conduct”, and he was sometimes “intimidating” and “insulting”. Now, this is demonstrably awful leadership in any person’s language, but does it really constitute bullying?

The barrister was, of course, obliged to form his conclusions with reference to the British government’s definition of bullying, and here’s where the problem begins. Apparently bullying is defined as “behavior that makes people feel intimidated or offended”.

Wow, that is incredibly subjective, and it’s almost impossible to be completely certain that you would be avoiding it.

Without losing sight of the fact that it absolutely will capture any cases of genuine bullying and intimidation (which, of course, is excellent), it also opens the door for anyone who is fragile, entitled, and coddled, to blame their own choices on someone else–namely their leader. This could potentially make anyone who’s a strong leader, by my definition, the target of bullying accusations, which I don’t think would be right.

Let’s face it, I could easily be accused of offending someone for my rant this morning about the Boston Bruins losing last night’s playoff game to the Florida Panthers. Some people would no doubt find my views on the Panthers’ win to be offensive. But would those comments have constituted bullying?

There has to be some sort of objective test of reasonableness. But who gets to decide? Who is the arbiter?

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I saw lazy, entitled employees gaslighting their managers for nothing more than expecting that they do the job that they were being paid to do. They would say, “My manager is bullying me.” No! Your manager is just asking you to do your job.

The fact that your last five managers didn’t have the backbone to do the same, doesn’t make your current manager a bully.

The key point here is that these perceptions are largely informed by culture and context. Politicians are just as prone as business leaders to bullying. During my corporate career, I got to rub shoulders with a few politicians, and I had the misfortune of witnessing some diabolical behavior from some of those who used their elected power to reign abuse on their public sector leaders.

These were just awful humans to have to deal with.

In Raab’s case, the article suggests that he was hardworking, direct, and driven to improve performance. He didn’t swear, he didn’t shout, and he didn’t make threatening gestures. But he would interrupt people when not getting a straight answer. And, if he was presented with substandard work, he would clearly say so, in no uncertain terms.

Did he lack empathy and compassion? Clearly.

Was his leadership stylistically questionable? Definitely.

Was he disrespectful and boorish? Probably.

But I’m still struggling to see bullying and intimidation based on the stated facts.

Now, importantly, this wasn’t a one-off complaint from a timid newbie who felt threatened. There were many civil servants who testified as to Raab’s completely unacceptable leadership behavior. And as Bartleby very eloquently points out, “bullying can be a one-off, but more often it’s incremental: stressors accumulate, anxiety builds, and atmospheres form.”

And yes, if enough people don’t want to work for you, the problem comes out in different ways:

  • a culture of fear, where the messenger is routinely shot;

  • a lack of trust and respect;

  • a focus on trying to please the boss rather than trying to produce results;

  • a feeling of not being appreciated or valued.

In short, it turns it into a terrible place to work, which makes it difficult to attract and retain talent, such as it is.

So, if the goal of that leader was to drive performance and results, well, it’s absolutely counterproductive to what they’re trying to achieve.

What’s the message for all of us, as leaders? Well, for a start, you’ve got to read the play. It’s critical to understand the context you’re operating in. Most importantly, never belittle anyone, particularly in a public forum. If there’s a performance issue, deal with it directly in a one-on-one setting, don’t just spray people with abuse.

Setting high standards and demanding results requires leadership strength, but that should never cross the line into disrespect or abusiveness. And to be sure, this line is becoming thinner, and it’s getting a lot harder to see.


The alleged bullying and unfair dismissal litigation in the Myer case is a little more loaded than the British Deputy PM’s resignation. It’s a legal case brought by an employee whose role was made redundant, seeking damages for being unfairly dismissed. Whenever a complainant is seeking monetary damages, the alignment of incentives can skew perceptions, on both sides of the coin.

Now, bear in mind, that we’ll never really know the truth here, as with any situation. Only the people involved know the extent of what happened, but the publicly available information prompts an interesting discussion.

One of the incidents cited in the legal submissions allegedly occurred in a large meeting with about 30 people, where the complainant claims to have suffered offense and distress. According to the documents, and I quote, “During the meeting, [the leader in question] used belittling and offensive language, interrupted, and cut people off before they’d said what they wanted to say, and was generally intimidating towards other attendees at the meeting.

Oh, okay. It sounds like the boss may have thrown the toys out of the cot when she didn’t get the answers she wanted. But this wouldn’t be particularly unusual in many workplaces today: Sh!t leadership, for sure, if indeed this allegation is true.

There was also clearly a breakdown in the relationship between the leader and the employee in question. But does this constitute bullying? And does it merit damages of over $700,000, as the complainant is seeking?

But that’s not all. Here’s where it gets super interesting: Myer made the plaintiff’s job redundant shortly after the complaint was lodged. Now, that sounds sort-of dumb to me, regardless of the circumstances. Restructure and redundancy may seem like an expedient way to remove someone that you no longer want working for you, but it smells awfully fishy, particularly when the person in question has recently raised complaints of bullying internally. It looks like retribution, even if it wasn’t. Based on that alone, it seems that the situation was poorly handled.

I suspect the case is going to be settled out of court, when Myer agrees to pay an undisclosed sum (which will be substantially less than the $700,000 being claimed), with the appropriate non-disclosure deed.

What can we learn from this case?

Once again, the key message is that you need to understand the context you’re operating in and you need to read the play; be aware of the power differential that your position carries. Some people will be intimidated simply because of that, alone.

Always be respectful, calm, and polite; never embarrass, criticize, or denigrate an individual in a public forum, even if it might feel as though it’s warranted–instead, save your performance conversations for one-on-ones; and if you have a performance problem, performance management is the only way to deal with it–don’t take the easy way out by fabricating a restructure and redundancy, which just exposes you and your company to unnecessary risk.

It’s an entirely inadequate way to solve this problem, but this is quite often the option used when either a weak leader hasn’t challenged, coached and confronted their people diligently, or the culture of the company is just to try and smooth things over by sweeping them under the rug.


Look, it’s pretty obvious that our perception of what constitutes bullying, intimidation, and harassment is shifting to meet evolving societal standards. And for the most part, this is a move in the right direction that we should welcome and embrace.

But, make no mistake, there will be an increasing number of cases where a decent, strong leader is accused of crossing that line.

I’m not convinced that, in either of the cases we looked at today, we’re dealing with strong leaders who were unfairly targeted. What is clear though is that, as leaders, we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Like many things that poor leaders used to get away with, bullying is just one more area where the limits of tolerance are closing in. It’s more important than ever to build your capability as a strong leader who gets results, while still stretching your people to reach a higher standard: give them the gift of playing on a winning team.

And if you have the empathy and compassion that strong leadership truly requires, no reasonable person will mistake that for bullying… and that just leaves you with the unreasonable ones, which has always been the case.


  • Ep #182: What is Strong LeadershipListen Here

  • Ep #168: Political Sabotage at Work – Listen Here

  • Ep #63: Reading the Play – Listen Here

  • Article: The Economist’s Bartleby column – Read Here

  • Article: Myer in court over alleged executive bullying – Read Here


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

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