America’s Bullying Culture

As I have written on other occasions, I hope that we as a society will connect the dots between seemingly different forms of bullying and abuse and understand their commonalities. That’s why I was pleased to see this piece by Sam Ali, writing for DiversityInc, noting the growing public concern over America’s culture of bullying at school, work, and in our political discourse:

In poll after poll, Americans have voiced concern over the erosion of civility in modern life and human interactions, in government, business, media and online. According to a poll released in June by Weber Shandwick, 65 percent of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem in the country and feel the negative tenor has worsened during the financial crisis and recession.


For a related observation, consider Henry Giroux’s piece on, positing that America has embraced a culture of cruelty (link here):

The culture of cruelty is important for thinking through how entertainment and politics now converge in ways that fundamentally transform how we understand and imagine politics in the current historical moment – a moment when the central issue of getting by is no longer about working to get ahead but struggling simply to survive.

Does bullying at work keep us productive and competitive?

In the U.S., we put bullying bosses on a pedestal. In fact, here’s a celebrated Harvard Business Review article by organizational behavior professor Roderick Kramer (link here), praising the “great intimidators” of the management world:

They are not averse to causing a ruckus, nor are they above using a few public whippings and ceremonial hangings to get attention.

Kramer insists that the great intimidators aren’t your “typical bullies” driven by ego and the desire to humiliate others. No, he claims, these are people of vision.

Bullying the anti-bullying legislation

For more evidence, consider the most twisted criticism of the Healthy Workplace Bill that I’ve encountered so far. In a 2007 article, employment lawyers Timothy Van Dyck and Patricia Mullen — a senior partner and associate, respectively, at one of the nation’s largest corporate law firms — claimed that legal protections against workplace bullying are contrary to high performance expectations for workers and the value of healthy competition (link here).

The very title of their article, “Picking the Wrong Fight: Legislation That Needs Bullying,” is suggestive of their mindset. But the substance of their views is even creepier. They posit that “tension created by competition” fuels productivity at work, and that workplace bullying legislation “would not only inhibit productivity and employers’ freedom to hire and fire at-will employees but moreover, it would chill critical workplace communication.”

It comes from the top

Regardless of the type of organization, the role of leadership is key. Kevin Kennemer of The People Group wrote about how organizational leaders play the crucial role in establishing the culture of a workplace (link here):

Today, more than ever, I believe company culture is king and the CEO is the torch bearer and champion for building a great workplace. As a business leader, spending time on your company’s work environment is like money in the bank for all stakeholders in the long-run.  The creation of a great company culture trumps the richest of compensation or benefits programs.  When your culture is toxic, you may overspend on various incentives to tie people to their cubicles.  However, employees can tolerate a bad workplace for only so long, even if the company has the best dental plan money can buy.

Bullying tends not to be an anomalous behavior in a given organization. When bullying occurs, typically it has been encouraged or enabled — directly or indirectly — by those at the top.


Hat tip to the Workplace Bullying Institute for the DiversityInc article.

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