To explain transgressive behaviour, the Champions League argument is often heard: top performances in the workplace are regularly created in a hard working atmosphere. There’s just no evidence for that. ‘Why does the other one have to break? Why are you putting your nails in now?’
It is no longer possible to find out exactly where the Champions League doctrine came from, but it seems that Matthijs van Nieuwkerk, his editors-in-chief and his bosses sincerely believed in it. They played ‘Champions League’. And anyone who wants to score in such a top class must be able to withstand stress and a hard working atmosphere and not make a drama out of a screaming manager. Unfortunately that was part of it.
Ever since de Volkskrant exposed the structurally transgressive behavior of and around the TV presenter, hardly anyone doubts that what DWDD happened, couldn’t. Yet the Champions League argument keeps popping up, now as a mitigating circumstance. Former editor-in-chief of NRC Peter Vandermeersch, for example, ‘saw how high the bar was’ at DWDD, he tweeted: “Demanding they were. Annoying. Difficult. Hard. Dissatisfied sometimes. And that’s why they made the best TV in the Low Countries.’ He later apologized for that.
With good reason, according to experts. Ask people who understand leadership whether such a tough, if necessary ‘necessary’ cross-border culture of judgment produces top performances and the answer is remarkably unanimous: no, there is no evidence for that. ‘Not even in the army,’ says Janka Stoker, professor of leadership and organizational change at the University of Groningen.
Researchers refer to it in the professional literature abusive supervision and because everything in her field is written in English, even Stoker doesn’t know a good one-to-one translation into Dutch. Cross-border leadership is just too weak, she thinks. “It’s about taking advantage of people. Making fun of someone says that other people’s thoughts are stupid, that you put someone down in front of others, remember past mistakes, don’t give credit, break promises, get angry.’
Stoker sends one major US study that in 2017 the state of more than fifteen years of research into abusive supervision inventoried. Conclusion: Despite anecdotal examples of seemingly successful cross-border leaders (such as screaming Champions League coaches), empirical evidence from over 200 studies overwhelmingly shows that abusive supervision unproductive but harmful to individuals, departments and entire organizations.
Another interesting finding from this study with DWDD in the back of the mind is about people who are most likely to engage in transgressive behaviour, such as tantrums (‘a disorder of self-regulation’). These are often people who experience a lot of stress under time pressure at work with very difficult goals to achieve. These are people who think they have to show different emotions than they actually have, who have trouble sleeping and find it difficult to combine work and family life.
Whether others then accept that transgressive behavior depends on things like role models in the workplace, in parenting and at home, plus the norms of a country and a culture.
Only a short-term effect
Even where employees are ‘only’ put under pressure to increase their performance, without yelling and cursing, the chance of dropping out due to overwork and depression is unproductively high, Annebel de Hoogh recently discovered. She conducts research into harsh and unethical leadership at the University of Amsterdam.
Together with colleagues, she investigated how profitable it is to put employees under pressure at a large bank in South America with more than 4,000 employees and 1,300 managers. The first results of the as yet unpublished research are clear, says De Hoogh. ‘In the short term you see that teams that are put under pressure by their managers make higher profits. But after six months the costs turn out to be enormous: the higher the pressure, the more often people call in sick due to stress complaints.’
below abusive supervisionIn fact, in the same study, profits didn’t go up at all. This only resulted in extra absenteeism of employees with mental complaints.
‘DWDD was not a team’
Jan de Vuijst, part-time professor of leadership at Tilburg University and coach of CEOs, also calls the Champions League argument nonsense: ‘The real problem with DWDD and in more companies there is no team. Where there are many changes, you cannot properly develop the mutual manners that are necessary to perform under pressure.’
De Vuijst sometimes asks managers directly: ”Why does the other person have to break? Why are you putting your nails in now?’ Usually it turns out to be in someone’s personal history.’ For example, a manager was once stuck and then managed to rescue himself from that situation. ‘Then you think very early on: aggression works.’
The social norm for good leadership has shifted considerably in recent decades. ‘Thirty years ago, a manager could afford more rude behavior than now’, says Freek Peters, part-time professor of contextual leadership at Tilburg University and coach for managers. “In the past, an executive was a lion king on a rock, he was almost untouchable.”
This has changed, among other things, due to the knowledge economy: employees are now experts in a certain field more often than before and know more about it than their boss, says Peters. That boss is expected to stand by and support his employees. Not all leaders realize this. Or they feel that something has changed, but they don’t know how to deal with it.’ Managers who turn to him for help often run into problems, says Peters. ‘Such a manager can think after a failure: I just had to vent, why do people take that so seriously?’
Try to play a little less bossy, Peters often advises. ‘Say, ‘How can I help you?’ This kind of executives find that very strange. They have learned: I have to give assignments, set deadlines.’ Chefs who feel good about themselves and have self-confidence can generally adjust their behavior relatively easily, says Peters. “It’s much more difficult for leaders with deep insecurity.”
Who leads the leader?
Who is responsible if the leader abuses his power? Who leads the leader? Then you end up, says Janka Stoker, with what is called ‘psychological safety’ in the professional literature. In a psychologically safe workplace, people dare to answer their manager and this has no negative consequences: ‘Moreover, you want there to be a system in your organization that people can go to with critical observations and that something will happen with it.’
But if the person who misbehaves is also a signboard for an organization, then that becomes difficult. Stoker: ‘Special about the situation DWDD was that not only the employees were dependent on Matthijs van Nieuwkerk. The special thing about these types of stars is that higher management also depends on them. So he not only had power over the people he lashed out at, but also over the people who should have addressed him. Power up.’
Rules and codes of conduct can prevent bully behavior, but they must be followed. This also applies to bosses who are naturally inclined to abuse their power, as it turned out last year from research by Annebel de Hoogh among five hundred Dutch bosses and their employees. The researchers had the executives fill out a questionnaire about their personality. Employees rated the behavior of their bosses. The researchers also looked at the working climate, rules and codes of conduct. ‘We saw that executives who have the ability to be manipulative and go beyond boundaries did so more quickly in working conditions where there were few rules.’
Call horn next to aggressor
Once an aggressor can go ahead, you often see someone nearby who helps make that possible, says Jan de Vuijst, ‘a kind of shouting horn from the aggressor, someone who magnifies that behaviour. There is apparently something attractive about being around such a manager.’ Also with DWDD an editor seemed to fulfill that role.
At an early stage it is often quite possible to correct a manager who is going off the rails, says De Vuijst: ‘In the business world they speak of the jester in the board room: you need someone who says to the chairman of the board of directors: dude, act normal for a while.’ Over time, this becomes increasingly difficult.
What would De Vuijst have advised if he continued DWDD was engaged as a coach? ‘Then I would have spent more work on the editors who are victims than on those who misbehave. Real aggression, you can often bend that energy in a different direction. But having someone around you who rants and roars, that paralyzes. It’s easier said than done to reply.’
Workplace harassment: how common is it?
Nearly 1 in 10 employees in the Netherlands say they sometimes have to deal with intimidating behavior by managers or colleagues, it appears from the latest edition of the large-scale survey into working conditions that TNO conducts annually. Structural harassment is rare: in the vast majority of cases, according to the employees, it was a single incident.
British research in 35 countries, including the Netherlands, showed in 2020 that 13 percent of the 27 thousand employees surveyed qualified their boss as a ‘bad boss’. Janka Stoker and economist Harry Garretsen point it out in their new book Good leaders in uncertain times that it hardly mattered if a boss was nice or respectful—though it didn’t say they wanted to be yelled at either. Employees suffered most from leaders with too little substantive knowledge. The researchers concluded that too much attention is paid to empathetic and nice leaders, and not enough to their expertise.