Research: Organisational leaders' attitude to bullying

We present an extract of research from Andrew Faas’ new book ‘The Bully’s Trap’

“The attitudes that organisational leaders have on bullying in the workplace is the single biggest determiner as to whether an organisation is free and safe from bullying,” wrote Andew Faas in his book ‘The Bully’s Trap’. Here we present an edited extract of the chapter around surveyed leaders’ attitudes to bullying.   

  • If leadership does not understand what constitutes bullying and are unaware of the consequences to the individual, organisation and the community, bullying will be condoned and even encouraged.
  • If leadership believes that bullying is an effective tactic to achieve results, bullying will certainly be condoned and encouraged.
  • If the CEO is also the CBO (Chief Bullying Officer) bullying will not only be condoned and encouraged; managers throughout the organization will be expected to bully.

To understand the mindset of organisational leaders on bullying, 138 leaders were interviewed—seventy-two CEOs, twenty-six Executive Directors, and forty Board Chairs across Canada and The United States. Of the 138, 33 were women.

These leaders represent a cross section of organisations, private and public, government, health care, manufacturing, financial services, retail, technology, transportation and resources. All but twenty-one of the organizations had multiple locations and the number of employees ranged from a low of just under 400 to a high of 64,000. Employees in 16 of the organisations were represented by a union or an association.

The methodology used was a structured but open-ended face-to-face discussion with each to gain qualitative insights. I do not claim this to be a scientific study; however, the findings and observations validate and are consistent with the findings and observations on the interviews conducted with over 300 people who either have been bullied or have someone close to them who has been bullied.

With most of the leaders interviewed there was a debate on what constituted bullying. Most would not accept the definition and viewed what I described as the ways and means of bullying as more of an aggressive management style. All did acknowledge however that sexual and racial harassment was wrong and should be considered bullying. These debates at the front end of the discussion helped put the overall discussions in context. While most felt my definition was too extreme, all but a few accepted it for the purpose of the discussion.

As the purpose was to gain an understanding on their attitudes and level of awareness, the interviews conducted avoided debating the rightness or wrongness of bullying.

The Findings:

  1. The overall level of awareness and understanding of what constitutes bullying (and what does not) is low. Most do not view bullying as workplace violence.
  2. Although most want their organisations to be viewed as employers of choice and rate brand and reputation value as a high priority, few view bullying as a business risk in their organisation.
  3. The overall level of awareness and understanding of the impact that bullying has on the individual, organisation and community is low.
  4. When given our definition of bullying and the ways and means of bullying, all but seventeen indicated that they at some point in their careers have been targeted. Ironically many described their experiences and those of others they are close to with great indignation.
  5. 73% of the CEOs indicated that they could argue they were being bullied by their Board of Directors because of the pressure for short-term results.
  6. All but three of the Executive Directors of the not for profit organisations indicated that they spend a disproportionate amount of their time dealing with unreasonably difficult Board members.
  7. 67% acknowledged that they use bullying as a tactic to get things done, improve productivity and/or get better deals.
  8. 69% believe that those who are targeted have performance or attitudinal issues, therefore, with the exception of sexual or racial bullying, it is warranted.
  9. 71% condone bullying because they believe that fear is a better motivator than what they refer to as “that human resources stuff.”
  10. The notion that bullying causes targets to reduce their level of engagement, commitment and performance was widely rejected.
  11. 52% of the leaders who operate where there is workplace violence and/or anti-bullying legislation were aware of the legislation, those who were aware felt that their organisations were compliant and only 7% could describe what compliant meant.
  12. 86% indicated that they would not educate their employees on bullying because of a concern that employees would use bullying as a sword or a shield when they are subjected to disciplinary action.
  13. While 62% indicated that they had stated values and operating principles only 14% of these could recite what they were.
  14. Only 27% could give adequate answers to cultural indicators [staff turnover (resignation rate), reasons people cite for leaving (absentee rate), number of people on stress leave, participation rate of engagement surveys, participation rate of people using EAP, history of human rights complaints].
  15. Of the 40 Board Chairs interviewed, six indicated their boards reviewed some of the cultural indicators.
  16. 54% measure beyond the financials and 44% of this group uses a balanced scorecard methodology.
  17. Of the 34 who had to deal with instances of bullying only four found the alleged bully to be at fault.
  18. 69% considered staff turnover as a positive as it “gets rid of dead weight” and “allows for new blood.”
  19. 51% acknowledged that employees in their organisations may be afraid to report wrongdoings.
  20. 86% felt that whistle-blowers should be required to absolutely prove the allegation.
  21. 52% consider whistle-blowers treasonous.
  22. 63% recognised that they may not be hearing what they need to hear.
  23. 76% indicated that they often accept one-sided representations when there is a conflict or disagreement.
  24. 71% feel it is healthy to create a certain amount of conflict because “it makes people competitive.”
  25. 32% manage by “walking around.”
  26. 24% used the latest economic downturn to “clean house.” Most of this group challenged their managers to force people out rather than lay them off.

Based on the work I have done in the area and my analysis of interviews conducted, it is my assessment that:

  • Bullying is not considered to be an issue.
  • More than half of the organisational leaders are bullies.
  • Because of the pressure to deliver on short-term results most organisational leaders condone and encourage bullying to force productivity and force people out.
  • The attitudes that organisational leaders have on bullying begets bullies throughout organisations. Bullies become the heroes and the bullied become not only the targets but also the villains (bullied bullies).
  • As long as results are achieved, boards of directors are not interested in whether or not bullying goes on. Note point 14 above where only 27% of organisational leaders could give adequate answers to cultural indicators.
  • Organisational leaders view fear as a more effective motivator than performance management systems.
  • Workplace violence and anti-bullying legislation is viewed as an unnecessary aggravation that is relegated to either legal or human resources to fulfil the bare minimum.
  • Short of a “going postal” situation, bullying will not be considered an issue with most organizational leaders.
  • There is a fear that by raising the level of awareness on bullying, there will be abuse by employees, accusing managers of bullying when they try to correct deficiencies, and managers will become afraid to manage.

The scandal at Rutgers University illustrates the attitudes of organisational leadership on bullying. In the fall of 2012 a video exposed Mike Rice, The Scarlet Kings men’s basketball coach, verbally and physically abusing players. The President, Robert L. Barchi, was made aware of the video in November of 2012, but claims he did not view it. An ethics committee made up of board members and trustees did view it at a December 14th meeting and were satisfied that the three-game suspension Rice received was adequate.

Barchi, in defending his role, placed blame on the athletic director, Tim Pernette, and other officials, saying they decided to follow a process involving university lawyers, human resource professionals, and outside counsel. This is based on a report that was commissioned that recommended that Rice be suspended and sent to an anger management course.

The 50-page report, conducted by an outside lawyer, made clear that Rice’s outbursts “were not isolated” and that “he had a fierce temper, used homophobic and misogynistic slurs, kicked his players and threw basketballs at them.” The report went on to describe him as “passionate, energetic and demanding” and claim that his behaviours constituted “permissible training” and he “caused them to play better during the team’s basketball games.”

After the video exploded in the media, Barchi had Rice fired. One can only assume the firing was in reaction to the disastrous publicity—not Rice’s behaviour!

I assert if this case does not prompt leaders to view workplace bullying differently, nothing will.

There has been much debate on the Miami Dolphins harassment situation. In October of 2013, Jonathan Martin walked away from a multimillion dollar contract with the Miami Dolphins alleging harassment by his teammates, coach, and in particular, the ring leader, Richie Incognito. Incognito, who has a record of abusive behaviour, claimed he was asked by the coaching team to “toughen him (Martin) up.”

People I have spoken to about this have generally had the attitude that what happened to Martin was appropriate as football is a tough game and if players can’t take the heat they should get out. My counter to this argument is using boot camps in the military as an analogy. There is no question that it would be irresponsible not to test and train soldiers for physical and emotional endurance, and the intent of boot camps is to strengthen the individual before they are sent into harm’s way.

My analysis of what happened to Martin is that Incognito’s intention and the tactics he used were to destroy rather than strengthen.

In conditioning people to work in dangerous or tough environments the use of racial and homophobic slurs, threats, innuendoes and demanding questionable actions effectively weaken the target to the point they want out which in my view is what happened to Martin in February 2014. The National Football League’s independent investigators found that this is a cultural issue within the Miami Dolphins largely due to the attitude of the coaching and management team.



IDG Connect also interviewed Andrew Faas about his reasons for writing ‘The Bully’s Trap’