The impacts of good and bad leadership on employee health

A bit of web surfing turned up a very useful 2011 blog post examining links between leadership qualities and employee health.

Richard Williams, Wallace Higgins, and Harvey Greenberg — consultants with Nehoiden Partners and writing for Boston.com’s Northeast Human Resources Association blog — start by building a pitch for leadership development programs:

Your boss should come with a warning label: May be hazardous to your health. Research once again has confirmed what we’ve always suspected – your boss can cause you stress, induce depression and anxiety or even trigger the onset of serious illness. It is not just bad managers who can negatively affect employee health, but it is also the lackadaisical and mediocre who can put employees on the sick list.

While the cost to employees is their health, welfare and sometimes their income, the cost to workplaces is lost productivity, turnover, training, disability payments and staggering health insurance premiums. Moreover, a whole new field of litigation is opening – lawsuits against “bad” bosses and the organizations that negligently allow them to supervise.

But hope is not lost. A careful review of the research on leadership behavior and employee health yields some important surprises about leadership development and its potential impact on employee health and performance. There appears to be a clear relationship between leader behaviors and employee health, which is a pre-requisite for good performance. Furthermore, those behaviors are specific enough to be part of an effective leadership development program.

Summarizing studies

The authors do an excellent job of summarizing research findings on leadership and employee health. Here’s a snippet:

  • Eleven studies found that positive leader behaviors were associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression while the lack of positive leadership behaviors was associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression. Kuoppala’s meta-analysis of the research on employee health and leadership behaviors concluded that employees with good leadership were 40% more likely to be in the highest category of psychological well-being, including lower levels of anxiety and depression.
  • Eight studies on burnout – physical or emotional exhaustion as the result of prolonged stress – found that positive leader behaviors led to lower levels of burnout.
  • Six studies on stress had mixed results. Four studies found a relationship between leader behaviors and stress; two did not. Taken altogether however these studies strongly indicate that positive leader behaviors can reduce stress while the lack of these behaviors creates an environment that increases stress.

The full blog article includes a link to citations of studies referenced within. If this topic is of interest, it’s definitely worth a click-and-print.

Workplace wellness and workplace bullying

When you hear the term “employee wellness,” do you also think about “workplace bullying”?

That question has been buzzing through my head since yesterday, when it was my pleasure to speak at a program on creating healthy workplaces, sponsored by the New England Work & Family Association (NEWFA) — a group of human resources and wellness program professionals committed to supporting work-life balance — and hosted by the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

A tale of two halves

The first half of the program was an interesting panel discussion about workplace wellness programs, featuring presentations by NEWFA members who have developed and managed wellness programs. We heard about a variety of useful, pro-active initiatives, including health education and coaching (e.g., nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation), stress reduction, and mindfulness training.

The second half of the program was my presentation about workplace bullying and the challenges facing HR. Although I framed my remarks within the context of promoting healthy workplaces, it was clear that my piece was about the “dark” side of work. How else to describe a phenomenon that reduces productivity and morale and triggers a long list of negative health outcomes?

Will the twain meet?

Both pieces of the program related to the same general topic, namely, the creation and sustenance of healthy workplaces that embrace both productivity and employee well-being.  However, I couldn’t help but notice how the room tensed up as my talk explored the details about workplace bullying.

As I told the group, workplace bullying is a very threatening topic to many organizations, especially when the behavior is frequent and comes from a top-down direction. After all, boss-to-subordinate bullying is the most common combination, at least in the U.S. Furthermore, bullying and mobbing behaviors tend to be fueled by organizational cultures that enable or even encourage them. In short, bullying at work often points to responsibility at the top.

Contrasts in dealing with senior management

Perhaps this explains a fundamental difference in how and why senior management is consulted by HR.

Speakers on the panel about employee wellness explained that they often didn’t have to go to top management for specific approval about every new initiative they developed. In some cases, they simply went ahead with a program that eventually would become a regular offering, with no apparent pushback from the corner office.

When I talked about incorporating workplace bullying prevention and response into HR practices and training, however, I saw knowing nods in response to my advice to assess management tolerance for such initiatives and to consult legal counsel on liability exposure.

An integrated perspective

Perhaps I’m making excuses for the pizza I enjoyed the other night, but I don’t think we can de-couple bad habits such as unhealthy eating and smoking from undue stress at work. Indeed, it strikes me as ironic that we can talk more openly about wellness programs designed to reduce stress and improve health habits, while sometimes sweeping under the rug work-related conditions — such as bullying — that create a need for them.

In short, the quest for healthy workplaces cannot ignore fundamental conditions of work. It’s why I am thankful that NEWFA and Boston College created a program that allowed us to consider the workplace in a more balanced light.

HR in the contemporary workplace

Yup, I’m pretty tough on human resources offices. No doubt this orientation is grounded in the shared stories of so many workplace bullying targets who report being abandoned or set up by HR. Rare is the bullying account that expresses appreciation for HR’s intervention.

However, I fully concede that HR often is in a difficult place, caught in the cross fires of organizational politics. It’s why I’ve posed the question of whether an ethical HR officer can survive in a lousy workplace.

It’s also the case that ethical, pro-active HR practices typically fall under the radar screens. Why? Because if HR is doing its job in a good workplace, then we’re highly unlikely to hear about it!

In any event, here are past posts that emphasize HR situations and actions when things aren’t going so great:

1. “Workplace bullying is bad for business” (2012) — Linking to a Worcester Business Journal op-ed I authored that discusses HR’s role in dealing with workplace bullying situations.

2. Are HR professionals bullied at work? (2011) — Unfortunately, independently-minded HR officers are potential bullying targets, too.

3. Quiet cover-ups (2011) — When HR is complicit in covering up bad behavior.

4. The “exit parade” as a worker termination protocol (2011) — All that’s missing is the firing squad (pun intended).

5. Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company? (2010) — A very challenging question.

6. SHRM opposes workplace bullying legislation (2010) — Disappointing. Very disappointing.

7. Don’t assume that HR is your buddy (2010) — HR plays a vital role in the workplace, but workers should not mistakenly regard HR as their ally.

8. HR as grim reaper (2009) — Being the terminator can come with costs.

9. “HR was useless” (2009) — One of this blog’s most popular posts, placing a common worker complaint against the purposes & loyalties of HR.

Recipe for healthy employee relations: Encourage speech, nurture civility, and prohibit abuse

Okay, I’m kinda thinking out loud here, but I’ve been pondering the lines between promoting positive organizational cultures and drawing clear distinctions on when certain abusive behaviors call for sanctions.

In the U.S., the omnipresence of at-will employment — the right to hire and fire for any reason or no reason at all — and the low density of labor union membership means that most employers enjoy wide latitude to develop and implement employee relations policies and practices.

Organizations can, if they wish, clamp down on employee speech, encourage cutthroat competition, and bully workers relentlessly. Much of this will be legal, given the weaknesses of worker protections beyond employment discrimination laws.

Of course, most of us know that such practices are a recipe for disaster, or at least guarantee an underperforming, low-morale workplace. With that in mind, let’s set out a few basic parameters for something better:

1. Encourage speech — The late Peter Drucker, management guru extraordinaire, nailed it in his book Managing for the Future (1992), where he extolled the virtues of employee input and participation in problem solving. Drucker urged that “partnership with the responsible worker is the only way” to succeed in today’s knowledge and service economy.

Worker silence is a sign that many have withdrawn emotionally from the broader enterprise and are doing what they have to do to survive. An organization that encourages a robust, honest exchange of ideas and feedback is much better off than one that sends the opposite signal.

But be forewarned: Once someone is punished for stating her opinion or offering constructive criticism, trust can easily disintegrate. This has to be a “walk the talk” commitment if it is to flourish.

2. Nurture civility — Civility, fairness, and genuine inclusion should be practiced by management rather than preached. It’s all about creating a culture based on actual, observable practice and conduct.

However, imposing company civility or speech codes is problematic. The give and take of ordinary human interactions needs to make room for occasional sharp exchanges and flaring of tempers. When conduct gets out of hand, someone should step in (see below), but an everyday dust up should not be punished. In fact, it may be the canary in the coal mine that signals a deeper problem worth addressing.

3. Prohibit abuse — When speech becomes abusive, intervention is necessary. Bullying, harassment, and intimidation should be prohibited. Some aggressors can be coached or counseled; others should be disciplined or terminated. Targets of their behavior should be safeguarded and protected from retaliation for reporting the mistreatment.

This is an ultimate test of organizational ethics, especially if an aggressor happens to be a senior person. Strewn around too many workplaces are a lot of lumpy rugs, with very ugly, destructive behaviors swept under them.

Want more socially intelligent workers? Hire novel readers

If you want to hire more workers who understand the human condition, you might set up a recruiting table near the fiction shelves of your local library or bookstore.

Emeritus professor Keith Oatley (University of Toronto) is among those studying the effects of novel reading on the emotional development of readers. He and others are finding that, contrary to popular belief, those who immerse themselves in fictional worlds and characters may be more empathetic, open minded, and socially aware than those who do not.

Oatley gathered these emerging insights in a Scientific American Mind piece (Nov.-Dec. 2011), “In the Minds of Others.” Here’s a snippet:

Recent research shows that far from being a means to escape the social world, reading stories can actually improve your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings. The process of entering imagined worlds of fiction builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view. It can even change your personality. The seemingly solitary act of holing up with a book, then, is actually an exercise in human interaction. It can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.

Although the full article is not freely available from the magazine’s website, a brief summary and ordering information may be accessed here.

Workforce implications

Oatley’s article doesn’t dwell on the implications for the workforce, but it’s pretty easy to take that step.

At a time when we seem preoccupied with finding workers who possess technological and computer skills, let’s not overlook qualities of social intelligence in evaluating job applicants. Indeed, if you spend any time talking to those who interview prospective employees, they’ll tell you that sometimes it’s hard to find people who can carry on a decent conversation and relate to others.

Also, these findings buttress the case for how a liberal arts education can prepare people to enter the workforce and even to play leadership roles. It reminds me of a blog post I wrote three years ago suggesting “that the study and application of philosophy can help managers sort through difficult decisions at work.”

Call me “old school,” but when it comes to hiring new co-workers, Oatley and his colleagues may make a strong case for hiring the young person who just finished Moby Dick over her college classmate who spent that time texting furiously about like, u know, whatever.

***

The Scientific American Mind issue containing the article is worth ordering if this topic interests you. It’s a full feature that also lists suggestions for further reading.

3 Questions for Kevin Kennemer, founder of The People Group

Kevin Kennemer

Kevin Kennemer is founder of The People Group, an Oklahoma-based organizational consulting firm “founded on the premise that positive people practices are primarily the missing component of average performing companies.” Kevin also is a long-time friend of this blog and an emerging leader in calling for workplaces that are both humane and productive.

Over the years I’ve mentioned and linked many of Kevin’s blog posts and commentaries. I’m delighted that he kindly agreed to take a few questions about his work:

1.  Kevin, please tell us about why you created The People Group and describe its mission.

In December 2007, I left one of the largest privately-owned energy companies in the U.S. to start The People Group.  As the former chief human resource officer of this large energy concern, my department, along with many other fellow leaders and employees, helped create a best in class work environment. Unfortunately, we also had a few executive bossholes who were as toxic as a Cyanide cocktail.

After fighting for months to enlighten the CEO of the growing presence of toxic leadership, I was asked to move on. Seven months after my departure, the renowned mid-stream energy company filed for bankruptcy.

The positive and negative experience of this trying time allowed me to see how to create and destroy a great company.  Just like positive people practices create great companies, toxic leaders will eventually destroy an organization.

The People Group focuses on the best practices in culture formation. Great workplaces have a positive impact on employees, their families, business owners, and society.

2.  What are your plans for The People Group in 2012?

Continue working to create National awareness of the positive business benefits of creating positive company cultures, by 1) speaking to groups about the business necessity of creating great workplaces, 2) working diligently to acquire new clients to help make our message a reality on the ground at various workplaces, and 3) continue writing The Chief People Officer Blog and serving as an official blogger for SHRM’s Next Blog.

3.  How can we get businesses to take workplace bullying more seriously?

Although I would like to imagine that all human beings, including CEO’s, would want to build a team of employees without bullies, I realize this not the reality. Businesses are in business to make money. However, bullies cost companies a great deal of money by lowering productivity, increasing turnover, reducing the positive energy inside their department and simply sucking the life out of those around them.

The best way to reduce or eliminate bullying in the workplace is to show CEO’s the financial advantages of eliminating bullies and their toxic behavior. Enlightened self-interest is the best way to move this mountain.

If the CEO is a bully herself, there is not much hope for that company and I would recommend employees find a different place to earn a living.

***

Starting in 2012, “3 Questions for…” is a regular feature presenting short interviews with notable individuals whose work and activities overlap with major themes of this blog.

“Workplace bullying is bad for business”

Thanks to the Worcester Business Journal for soliciting and publishing this short op-ed piece, “Workplace Bullying is Bad for Business,” which ran last week.

Here’s the “takeaway” part of what I wrote:

Too many employers dismiss concerns about workplace bullying. According to a 2007 national survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby pollsters, 62 percent of employers either ignored complaints of bullying or worsened the situations.

Nevertheless, employers that want to minimize the likelihood of bullying can take these three concrete steps:

1. Send a message that bullying is unacceptable. The message must come from the top. Specific measures include drafting and implementing policies related to workplace bullying, offering in-house educational programs and presentations, and using effective “360-degree feedback” systems to evaluate supervisors.

2. Empower HR to handle bullying situations fairly and forthrightly. One of the most common remarks from targets of bullying is how the human resources department is “useless” in handling complaints about bullying and, in some cases, turned out to be complicit with the bullies. Effective preventive and responsive measures by HR are key components of any anti-bullying initiative.

3. Remove destructive bullies. Even if an incorrigibly abusive individual happens to be key in attracting business, increased productivity through better morale and less time lost to the gossip mill may make this a sound decision from a purely cost-benefit standpoint.

What workplace bullying teaches us about the integrity of American employers

Ståle Einarsen, University of Bergen psychology professor and a leading authority on workplace bullying, once gave a conference keynote address in which he said, in effect, that rather than using our knowledge of employment relations to help us understand workplace bullying, perhaps we should use our knowledge of workplace bullying to help us understand employment relations.

I had his remarks in mind when I realized that if you want an ultimate test of an American employer’s integrity, examine how it responds to risks and claims of workplace bullying. Here’s why:

1. Limited liability exposure — Until the Healthy Workplace Bill or something like it becomes law, most American workers will not have a direct legal claim against their employers for workplace bullying, no matter how abusive the conduct and its effects. Accordingly, employers that choose to tackle workplace bullying pro-actively are doing so out of a commitment to their workers and to the resulting benefits in terms of productivity and morale.

2. Adopting and enforcing a strong policy — Currently employers are under no legal obligation to develop a policy concerning workplace bullying. An employer that adopts and enforces a policy is making a statement about its institutional culture, while potentially exposing itself to liability in the event of a violation. This is a big step to take.

3. Power differentials — Workplace bullying in the U.S. tends to be a top-down phenomenon, with supervisor-to-subordinate mistreatment being the most common combination. This is why workplace bullying is such a threatening topic to organizations and to individuals in charge: It often implicates the very power structure of a workplace. Thus, preventing and stopping workplace bullying requires a sincere, full-blown organizational commitment.

4. Investigation challenges — Although workplace bullying is frequent and destructive, conducting a fair and thorough investigation can be a difficult and challenging task. This is especially the case when the allegations involve behaviors of a more indirect nature.

In other words, workplace bullying challenges employers to do right by everyone, even if the liability risks are comparatively low, senior managers are among those whose actions will be reviewed, and investigating claims of bullying are difficult and time consuming. Employers that embrace these priorities and practices are special indeed.

Are HR professionals bullied at work?

If you want a job in which you won’t be subjected to workplace bullying, then perhaps the human resources field isn’t for you.

Pamela Babcock, writing for the Society for Human Resource Management’s Safety and Security blog (link here), reports on Dr. Teresa Daniel’s survey of 102 Kentucky HR professionals:

In an online survey of 102 HR professionals in Kentucky, 31.4 percent reported that they had been bullied at work. Behaviors included work interference or sabotage (42.4 percent), verbal abuse (33.3 percent), and offensive conduct such as threats and humiliation or intimidation (24.2 percent).

HR professionals reported being bullied at the same rates as other employees responding to recent surveys. However, an important finding was that over half (54.1 percent) of the bullied participants reported that they felt that the abuse was related to their role as an HR practitioner.

Why is this so?

Daniel then asked targeted individuals why they believed they were being bullied:

In follow-up interviews, 28 participants offered the following explanations as to why they felt HR is a target for bullying:

  • HR must often tell managers “no.”
  • The role is not fully appreciated and/or understood.
  • HR is perceived by some as lacking business knowledge.
  • HR practitioners sometimes lack professional credentials, education or “organizational fit.”
  • Insecure managers might see competent HR professionals as a threat.

Babcock’s article closes with useful recommendations from Daniel and survey respondents on how HR professionals can deal with these situations.

Caught in the middle

As this survey confirms, when HR practitioners disagree with the wishes or decisions of senior management, they sometimes pay the consequences.

This especially may be the case when HR disagrees with management on personnel matters, and it can lead to being bullied. In a blog post titled “Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company?,” I concluded:

For HR practitioners who see their role solely as an extension of upper-level management, questions of how to treat the rank & file are easy to resolve: Go with what the bosses want, even if it means that someone gets screwed over or unethical behavior is swept under the rug. In cases of workplace bullying or sexual harassment, we know what this usually means.

Conscientious HR practitioners, however, face a dilemma when management philosophy and practice run squarely into the ethical treatment of workers. If they antagonize their bosses by doing the right thing, they, too, may find themselves on the firing line.

Quiet cover-ups

Several years ago, a young woman who was following developments concerning workplace bullying shared a personal story with me.

She once held a job as an administrative assistant, and her boss had been sexually harassing her. She described how his conduct was both verbal and physical, and in my view it likely constituted a hostile work environment in violation of employment discrimination laws. In addition, her boss was known for having harassed other young female employees.

She reported the harassment to the human resources director, who promptly told her there was nothing that could be done about her boss’s wrongful behavior. Instead, she was offered a lower paying position in a different department. Because she was relying on her employer’s tuition subsidy benefit for employees completing degree programs, she reluctantly accepted this less-than-ideal “resolution.”

Quiet cover-ups

When we contemplate cover-ups and corruption in organizations, we typically envision high-profile corporate and political scandals involving lots of money and/or power.

But quiet, more modest cover-ups, such as this one committed by a complicit HR director who protected a harassing boss and the organization from being held accountable, occur with much greater frequency. In these instances, those who opt not to file lawsuits in response to illegal behavior — often for understandable reasons — are left to cope as best they can.

A true test of institutional integrity is how an employer responds to complaints from workers near the bottom of the organizational chart who make credible reports of unlawful conduct. It is easy to bury these complaints — especially, for example, when the aggrieved party is a young woman who does not wish to make waves.

These ground-level corruptions, however, are indicative of an employer that lacks a commitment to ethical behavior. Is it an exaggeration to suggest that such an organization has the core potential to become the Enron of tomorrow?

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