Taking the pulse on boardroom bullying

Media release
By Institute of Directors
8 Jun 2021
read time
2 min to read
cross roads in forest

The Institute of Directors (IoD) recently checked in on its members to gauge the degree to which boardroom bullying impacts New Zealand directors.

Of the almost 250 respondents to the pulse survey, just under a third (32%) reported having been bullied or witnessed bullying in the boardroom. However, most (91%) said they’d feel comfortable raising or challenging bullying behaviour on some or all of their boards.

WorkSafe NZ defines bullying as “repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers, [which] can lead to physical or psychological harm”. Virtually all (95%) respondents said they recognised the difference between boardroom bullying and constructive challenge.

This is an important distinction, according to IoD chief executive Kirsten Patterson. “Boards won’t always be in harmony, nor should they be. Important decisions should stand up to vigorous debate and interrogation by alternative viewpoints,” she says.

“But, the boardroom must always be an environment of mutual trust and respect. No board member should ever feel mentally or physically unsafe in their role.”

IoD Wellington branch committee member Sam Robinson agrees, saying that the definition of bullying as being a behaviour which is “repeated and unreasonable” rings true.

“But, the boardroom is a place of robust and challenging dialogue and we cannot shy away from conflict. Contrarian positions need to be presented objectively and without anger. It’s not only what you say, but how you say it that’s important.

“High functioning boards should not have directors who come to meetings with preconceived and immutable positions. We need to recognise the importance of differing points of view but it’s also important that boards reach consensus in order to move forward,” Mr Robinson says.

While almost all respondents felt confident they knew what was bullying and what was not, IoD member and chair of Ultrafast Fibre Pip Dunphy questions whether there actually is a common understanding of what constitutes bullying in the boardroom.

“We need to be very careful about using the term without defining it first. In my experience, bullying at board level could be best described as a director "playing the person, not the issue”.

"Being a director requires a lot of self-awareness. You need to be able to read people and read their reactions to you. To be effective on boards you need a coalition of support. If you are a lone wolf, you need to self-examine and try to understand whether you are out of step or whether you’re being blocked. If you are being blocked, assess the long game and the interests you are serving in order to decide whether to tough it out or step down,” Ms Dunphy says.

Meanwhile, IoD member and strategic advisor, Loretta Brown emphasises that bullying behaviour by board members isn’t just confined to the boardroom, but can also apply in the relationship between the board and CEO.

“When board frustrations bubble over into blame, criticism and threat, the CEO becomes very isolated and can feel under attack. It’s easy for a board that has a culture of blame to tip into bullying behaviours that are often hidden but quite unacceptable,” Ms Brown says.

Ms Patterson noted that just over half (54%) of respondents said their boards either did not have effective policies and practices in place to deal with bullying, or they were unaware of any.

“In governance, strong opinions and hearty debate are often part and parcel of reaching constructive consensus on important issues. However, when this tips over into bullying or otherwise poor behaviour, boards need to deal with it and they should understand in advance how they’d do so,” she says.

See the full results of the survey

For more information, contact:

Vanessa Glennie,
Corporate Communications Manager
027 957 0315

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