19 January 2011

ADVICE FOR 2011 - Don’t Take Shit From Hyenas in the Workplace


How to become wise to office bullying

Watch your back or you may be the victim of a Workplace Hyena looking for a kill! This is the warning given by Dr Susan Steinman in her book, Don’t take shit from hyenas in the workplace. Steinman should know: she has spent 16 years studying Workplace Hyenas – bullies who use underhand and malevolent tactics to destroy rivals to gain money and power.

In the famous The Lion King film, various animals are archetypes for certain human characteristics.

The hyena is depicted as treacherous, cunning and two-faced. Similarly, Steinman uses the hyena as an archetype for the bully.

When one meets Steinman in person, she is cheerful, optimistic and down to earth, and one wonders why she involves herself in the murky world of dirty office politics.

“At first, it was a process of discovery through my research, but when I saw the dreadful impact of bullying, I had to become involved,” she explains.

Steinman has two doctorates, is founder of the Workplace Dignity Institute, and is currently director of the Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Johannesburg.

She is considered a leading expert on the subject of violence and bullying in the workplace, and assists victims all over the world. She was awarded an Ashoka fellowship in 2002 for her pioneering work in research, raising awareness and the development of programmes to tackle these issues.

We caught up with Steinman shortly before she jetted off to Cape Town, Amsterdam and then Saudi Arabia to address audiences about how to become Hyena-wise.

Her clever use of the hyena metaphor, which she finds is universally recognised, is her way of injecting lightness into a rather dark subject.

Humour, she believes, can be therapeutic and diminishes the power of the bully in the eyes of the victim.

So how does one identify a Workplace Hyena?

“They operate in overt and covert ways,” says Steinman. “Some scream, shout, throw tantrums and deliberately humiliate employees. Sometimes they resort to passive aggression, ignoring and isolating a victim, or use sarcasm and innuendo at the victim’s expense.”

Steinman describes e-mail as a terrible tool in the hands of a Workplace Hyena, who will copy an entire audience to belittle an employee. Other more covert methods are labelling, gossiping, half truths and conspiracies.

She says bullying must not be confused with normal conflict or strict discipline. Bullying is about 80% top down, is persistent and prolonged over a period of time. There is an imbalance in power. Its intention is to harm and degrade an individual.

Sometimes a subordinate will work to undermine a superior. “An example is of a personal assistant who knew exactly what her manager’s movements were, but would say that she had no idea where he was – implying he was incompetent. But Hyenas always operate in a clan, and she was under its protection,” says Steinman.

At the top of the clan are the Royal Hyenas – the Makhula Hyena and the Squeeza. They are supported by Power Hyenas (the Laughing, Quiet, Halo and Mampara Hyenas). Also in the clan are Competitive and Impimpi Hyenas (Den Creeper and Shit-Stirrer Hyenas).

Many organisations encourage a “kill or be killed” mentality. “These are Hyena Positive Enterprises, and a prime example of this was Enron where the Hyenas became untouchable,” says Steinman.

The Clan is headed by the Makula Hyena (Zulu for “great one”), usually employed in a key position. Steinman says former British prime minister Gordon Brown has allegedly been identified by his own staff as a bully; as well as Henry Kissinger.

Driven by power, the Makhula Hyena prefers to manipulate people. Being a clever strategist, the Makhula will use other Hyenas to ‘finish off’ a victim.

Every Workplace Hyena tries to get closer to the Squeeza, the protégé of the Makula. “It is almost pathetic to see a person squirm at the feet of the favourite, who may be of a lower rank than those trying to get into its good books.

“They often resemble the Makhula in many ways and keep ‘the boss’ informed at all times.

“The Squeeza can destroy careers because of its alliance with the Makula,” says Steinman.

Next in rank are Power Hyenas, who can be extrovert, dynamic and expressive. They can appear charming, intelligent and sometimes sympathetic. These traits can be very appealing to an uninformed non-Hyena. But Power Hyenas only support clan members. They are two-faced and do not like competent, dynamic non-Hyenas, and they never share their limelight.

The Quiet Hyenas are very dangerous, says Steinman. “They enjoy gaining power by intimidation and gathering intelligence for the Clan. This hyena is normally introverted, but an air of danger lurks around them.”

Even more treacherous, although lower ranking, are the Competitive Hyenas. They are ambitious, unethical and have a relentless drive to win at all costs, with an eye on displacing their superiors – even within the Clan.

When a Hyena decides to hunt, it does a risk assessment. It will only hunt someone who is vulnerable at work or in their personal life.

Steinman describes this tactic in the following case (names have been changed):

Rita, a bright and competent employee, was on her way up the corporate ladder. She worked for James, who realised her potential and was developing her into a managerial position.

Anna, another staff member, became extremely jealous of this relationship, as it threatened her career aspirations.

Rita’s general popularity was another thorn in Anna’s side. She started spreading rumours that James and Rita were having an affair, despite Rita being completely devoted to her fiancé. When Rita fell pregnant, Anna exploited the situation by insinuating that James was the father.

Rita was vulnerable, unwed and pregnant – easy prey for Anna, who used Rita’s circumstances to launch a “Hyena Attack”.

Rita went through one of the worst periods in her life. Though she survived, she has never forgotten the trauma of being attacked by a Workplace Hyena.

And then there is the Mampara Hyena. The African word mampara, meaning an “incompetent or foolish person”, ideally describes these Hyenas who resort to excessive bullying tactics and blatant lies to assert their dominance. More often than not, they get away with incompetence because the Clan protects them.

One of the more bizarre tactics Steinman has witnessed was the threat of witchcraft by a Workplace Hyena in the public sector, which resulted in high levels of absenteeism.

Impimpi is an African word for an “informer”.

The Impimpi Hyenas are exactly that – the low-ranking informers and intelligence gatherers such as the Shit-Stirrer Hyena. They thrive on gossip. These deceitful hyenas appear to side with everyone and anyone. But they feel safe in the Hyena Clan, and that is exactly where their loyalties lie.

Steinman does, however, warn against stigmatising the bully, as she believes everyone has the potential to bully. “Power and money are great tests of character. Look at some of our politicians who were once humble and idealistic, but became swollen headed and self-serving when elevated by politics. Anyone can fall under the spell of money and power and become Hyenas.”

She says certain events trigger increased Hyena behaviour. She calls them “work quakes”, for example retrenchments, mergers, changes in management and restructuring.

“Some organisations engage in serial restructuring or, to coin a word, ‘destructuring’.

“We even use violent words like ‘can’, ‘kill’ and ‘purge’. But it is an illusion that this is an effective solution.

“There seems to be a loss of creative thinking about how to improve business. Constant restructuring creates insecurity and can kill the soul of the business and its employees,” says Steinman.

“The recession has definitely triggered an upsurge in workplace bullying in both the public and private sectors.”

But surely, Hyena tactics are merely part and parcel of normal corporate politics?

Steinman does not accept this. “The trail of angst left by Workplace Hyenas has a detrimental effect on organisations. It makes employees unproductive, increases absenteeism and chases away real talent.

“It has been estimated that people who are being bullied lose 4.5 hours of productivity per week over a year (this includes the witnesses) in surveys done in the US and UK.

“It is highly counterproductive and can do reputational damage,” she adds.

Bullying is likely to seriously impact on the emotional and physical well-being of employees. Steinman says people who consult her compare being bullied to rape and physical abuse.

“There is a deep sense of hurt and betrayal. There is also a sense of shame at being bullied, that they are somehow to blame. This is exactly what the bully wants the victim to feel, so abuse continues to thrive.”

The impact can be so severe on victims that many suffer depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, migraines, ulcers, exhaustion, panic attacks
and illness. Some even have suicidal thoughts.

Research conducted by the European Union in 2000 found that many people still had symptoms of post-traumatic stress five years after being bullied.

People often label the victim a loser or deserving of their fate. But anyone can be a victim, even the most successful, popular and highly competent, if one is seen as a threat to a Hyena.

“No one deserves this, even if the person is perhaps irritating, neurotic or seen as a nerd,” says Steinman. “This is a human rights issue.

“Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace.”

She believes that bullying has to be confronted openly and transparently. “One needs to hold up a mirror to the bully. Sometimes that person may listen because no one likes being labelled a bully. There is a name for a bully – a Hyena. It is shameful. That is why awareness programmes can successfully reduce the frequency of bullying.”

Steinman believes policies are effective deterrents for Workplace Hyenas. But a policy is only as good as the paper it is written on.

Top management must commit to and support these policies and implement them vigorously to sustain a Hyena-free corporate culture.

“A golden rule is that the ego of the most senior employee is not worth the dignity of the person lowest in the hierarchy,” she says. “Management must keep relationships in an organisation healthy in order to encourage productivity and success. We need to create a more people-centred economy, where it is the norm to treat people with dignity and respect.”

Don’t take shit from hyenas in the workplace is available online from


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