We know the script. Hard ass movie general breaks all the rules, saves world, emerges a hero. Visionary CEO fires people if they can’t describe the value they add to the company within the space of a lift ride, creates fanatical product following, investors rejoice. Political leader promises to ‘drain swamp’, lies repeatedly, maintains multiple conflicts of interest, but that’s OK because we need a guy who’s going to shake things up.

But what lies beneath the gloss and spin of these stories? Does the need to ‘make big change’ excuse treating people with less respect than they deserve? Is it in fact required?

A strong leader recognises that every one of their people are different; they apply that in their interactions with them, and are respected for it. A bully, by contrast, intimidates, threatens and singles out employees. They are feared – not respected – and there is a big difference.


Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager who built the club into one of the true commercial juggernauts of our time over an unparalleled 26-year reign, and who has advised the likes of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (and will be quoted more than once in this post) sums this up perfectly:

“You can’t aspire to be loved, because that isn’t going to happen, nor do you want people to be frightened of you. Stay somewhere in the middle and have them respect and trust and see you as fair.”

So, what makes a strong leader? How can he or she learn who their employees are, how to lead them, motivate them and keep them on course without sacrificing the three pillars of respect, trust and fairness?

Read more on workplace bullying…

The answers to these questions are slightly more complex. A strong leader observes his or her people and learns about what kind of person they are: What are their habits? How do they express enthusiasm? And if their habits break or their enthusiasm dips, how can you help them get back to their best? This is the essence of leadership: managing people as individuals, and recognising that what works for one person does not necessarily work for another.

Secondly, a strong leader positively reinforces their people. To again quote Sir Alex:

“No one likes to be criticised. Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead. For a player – for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘well done.’”

And thirdly, a strong leader never holds a grudge. If performance or behaviour dips outside the bounds, the issue is addressed promptly and that is the end of it. People should never be made to feel uncomfortable in their workplace, and having a lengthy punishment hanging over them does not allow them that comfort and it ultimately shatters the pillars of respect, trust and fairness that a strong leader builds his or her foundations on.

Don't forget to subscribe to our monthly eMag - WorkLife

Expert insights and tips on how to build resilient and mentally healthy workplace cultures delivered straight to your inbox each month.

So, if that is a strong leader, what makes a bully?

Workplace bullying is verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by anyone in the workplace on another team member. For a manager, this means while they can reprimand, demote or terminate a staff member’s employment, they cannot do anything that could be viewed as abuse. This includes:

  • Intimidation
  • Making a staff member feel less important and undervalued
  • Giving pointless tasks to staff that has nothing to do with their job or tasks that are impossible for the staff member to complete
  • Deliberately changing rostered hours or work schedule to make life difficult
  • Withholding information pertinent for a task to be completed properly
  • Forcing a staff member to be excluded from their team mates or taking part in activities that relates to their work
  • Playing mind games or other types of psychological harassment

Managers who do this are not strong leaders. They are bullies.

And finally, what makes a victim? A victim of workplace bullying is not always an easy spot. However, there are signs, that if noticed should set off alarm bells in the mind of their employer. These include:

  • If they are less active or successful at work
  • If they are less confident in themselves or their work
  • Feel scared, stressed, anxious or depressed
  • Their lives outside of work are affected by their work
  • Wanting to stay away from work
  • Feeling they can’t trust their employer or the people they work with
  • Have physical signs of stress like headaches, backaches and sleep problems

It is important to note that bullying does not always come from the leaders in the workplace, it can come from anywhere in the business. A strong leader recognises and acts upon this swiftly and accordingly, because a happy and harmonious workplace is a successful workplace.

Author: Peter Diaz

Peter Diaz is the CEO of Workplace Mental Health Institute. He’s an author and accredited mental health social worker with senior management experience. Having recovered from his own experience of bipolar depression, Peter is passionate about assisting organizations to address workplace mental health issues in a compassionate yet results-focussed way. He’s also a Dad, Husband, Trekkie and Thinker.

Connect with Peter Diaz on:
Facebook-logo Podcast Icon LinkedIN-logo