I was listening to someone spouting the usual "the alpha behaviour in The Apprentice is so unrealistic and it's wrong because it puts people off business" when it occurred to me that the reason I don't watch The Apprentice is because alpha behaviour is mostly rather normal so it just puts me off television. The subject brings back some of the low points in my career.
One in the park near the office on a walk that I insisted on.
"One of the grads says you shouted at her to: 'F**k off out of your f**king office.'"
"NO," my then-CEO bellows, stopping in the path to stare at me emphatically. "I did not f**king swear. Who has accused me of swearing? They are a f**king liar."
The shouters, food throwers, phone slammers and a woman who managed to rant and cry at the same time all come back to me. There was also the MD who drunkenly locked one of our team in the disabled toilet and tried to grope her. In one job, my husband changed from asking: "How was your day?" to "How many people cried today?"
I think of them as the alphas. Not all of men, but all senior and prone to outbursts of anger or aggression. Maybe l've been unlucky but I suspect the opposite: my experience is pretty normal. According to a Family Lives survey, 66% of us say we have witnessed bullying at work.
Of course modern offices have anti-bullying policies and HR teams. But in my experience, few cases are formally referred to HR, maybe because the instigators tend to be senior. I was about to call HR over the disabled toilet incident but a senior man intervened and advised strongly against it, preferring to deal with it himself – the woman in question agreed. Gusts of flowers and grovelling apologies descended, the issue was glued down under the grey carpet tiles.
Of course, all this stuff is Life on Mars throwback nonsense and scales up from pretty stressful to the crazy stuff you must call in help over. We can – must – pit ourselves against it. But we're fools to pretend it doesn't happen. The question is how we deal with a world different from the glossy, corporate image of brochures. And how do we advise people starting their careers, perhaps especially our daughters, so gently treated by teachers these days, to be steely? I say daughters but the resulting tears are not left to the women: if it gets really hot, the young men break social conventions and cry too.
Someone I used to work with asked me to write this for them – I'm not a coach, though, so take what you please and ignore the rest.
Firstly, watch events with detachment. All of the people above – even the predatory MD – are charming, funny and self-deprecating at least some of the time. Question what has triggered this and identify the real problem – which may be, probably is, unstated.
Bear in mind that the stressors are usually external: shareholders, global chief execs, the finance team. The anger is rooted in fear. Loss of status or bonus or, in the case of bankers a coach tells me, their glossy wives. Look for the vulnerability. Rages feel personal, they rarely are and most are surprised to be thought of as bullies. When you challenge them – and you should – they will say they were expressing justified frustration. "He was crying? Why? I just told him his work was rubbish, he needs to know that." Often they just don't get the impact they have.
If you see a storm brewing, head it off. Well-judged humour can surface trouble and limit a gathering force: "Yes, I dialled the wrong number to wind you up." Even a guy we called the machine gun could recognise the ridiculous. Sometimes.
At least in the presence of others, hold yourself together. If you quiver and collapse a parent/child pattern is set and you risk becoming the victim. Leave the room if you must. There are exceptions to this: one senior woman I know cried in a board meeting and saw a marked improvement in behaviour.
Never smile in response to rudeness. It is called "dog smiling" and it's what Fiona Bruce did when the Duke of Edinburgh insulted her lack of career in his graceless 90th birthday interview. Smiling in the face of conflict is apparently a instinctive female response to male aggression conveying that you are not a threat. It is a position of weakness. Don't do it. Don't let your team do it.
Never let an incident slide. What you accept as normal is normal: psychologists call it layering and it's the reason I never play nursery rhymes in the car. If it happens once, it happens again. I know there are a thousand reasons you can't do address it – you need this job, you need the money, he/she is too senior to tackle, you're fine and it doesn't really matter now. Be aware then that you are choosing to live with it – and others will have to too.
How you tackle it is important. Fighting the fire with your own fireworks is a recipe for an industrial explosion of Chinese proportions. The best responses are glacial and usually delayed. If you really can't deal direct, then you should use HR or the most senior person you can find.
Whatever else happens, you need to mentally build a shell around yourself to protect your anxious mind. If someone knows how to do this, please let me know or I may have to start watching The Apprentice again.
Christine Armstrong is a contributing editor of Management Today, author of Power Mums (interviews with high-profile mothers) and founder of www.villas4kids.com. She can be found on Twitter at @hannisarmstrong.