U.S. Army’s investigation of toxic leadership may yield valuable insights on bullying/suicide links

The United States Army is taking a hard look at the effects of toxic leaders on the mental health of soldiers, and the results may yield valuable insights on linkages between bullying behaviors and suicidal tendencies.

Daniel Zwerdling reports for National Public Radio:

Top commanders in the U.S. Army have announced publicly that they have a problem: They have too many “toxic leaders” — the kind of bosses who make their employees miserable. Many corporations share a similar problem, but in the Army’s case, destructive leadership can potentially have life or death consequences. So, some Army researchers are wondering if toxic officers have contributed to soldiers’ mental health problems.

One of those researchers is Dave Matsuda. In 2010, then-Brig. Gen. Pete Bayer, who was supervising the Army’s drawdown in Iraq, asked Matsuda to study why almost 30 soldiers in Iraq had committed or attempted suicides in the past year.

Before Matsuda began his investigation, the suicides had been largely attributed to personal problems such as childhood experiences, family issues, and financial pressures. However:

A more complicated story began to emerge, he says. In addition to major problems in their personal lives, the victims also had a leader who made their lives hell — sometimes a couple of leaders — Matsuda says. The officers would “smoke” them, as soldiers call it.

“Oftentimes platoon leaders will take turns seeing who can smoke this guy the worst. Seeing who can dream up the worst torture, seeing who can dream up the worst duties, seeing who can make this guy’s life the most miserable,” says Matusda.

You can listen to Zwerdling’s 13-minute segment and access a transcript of it here.

Significant implications for understanding the workplace bullying/suicide link

Suicide is a very difficult and painful subject, not to mention a complicated one to understand. Those who have been studying workplace bullying and its effects are well aware, however, of growing anecdotal evidence linking severe bullying behaviors at work to suicidal ideation. Furthermore, we know from clinical psychology that bullying can trigger or exacerbate depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, two conditions associated with suicide.

All too often, targets of workplace bullying are dismissed as being “weak” or “overly sensitive.” Perhaps the Army’s study of toxic leadership will help to refute this wrongful presumption. Here are soldiers who have survived boot camp and experienced life-threatening combat conditions, yet their deaths have been associated with targeted, ongoing, malicious mistreatment by their superiors.

Weaklings? No. Human? Yes.


For more

Workplace bullying and the military (2011)

Please go here for additional posts on this blog discussing workplace bullying, suicide, and related topics.


Hat tip to Susan Thomas for NPR piece.

12 responses

  1. There is a Buddhist concept referred to as “esho funi”- the oneness of person and environment. It recognizes the distinct but inseparable characteristics if a being and it’s context…like a fish and the water in which it swims. Here’s a link to a fuller description:


    I have worked extensively with people who have experienced suicidal ideation and attempts, and with many who have completed suicide. Many many times I have heard expressions of anguish that I can paraphrase to a common refrain… “I can’t go on living like this…”

    There has been too little attention paid to the social context and mental environments of suicidal responses (I choose that word carefully and prefer it to “tendencies”). The Stanford Prison and Milgram experiments offer some insights, and I think that further research on the topic could lead to creating environments (at work and elsewhere) that support our flourishing rather than torment and destruction.

  2. I thought i heard on this NPR segment that Dave Matsuda is an anthropologist.

    I’m reminded that for the last 12 years as I’ve been researching workplace bullying and mobbing, I’ve often wondered why there were so few studies from anthropological and psychological perspectives on toxic leadership in legal related workplaces.

    I have experienced the default reaction of conservative institutions, like the military and the legal community, in their making the Fundamental Attribution Error/Bias when attempting to understand a bullying vvictim’s anger, frustration, and emotional sensitivity. They need to look more broadly and do something about the toxic work environments and toxic leadership that bullying victims have had to endure. I deal almost everyday with some aspect of bullying-induced trauma, stress and the legal community’s lack of interest in remedies and restorative justice.

    Question: If the military brass can be heads-up on this issue and committed to progressive and responsible leadership, why couldn’t we establish a project for 2014 of taking a small but powerful segment of the working world–say, legal-related workplaces–and encourage every law school and bar association to make sure that at least there are progressive, anti-bullying policies in every legal related workplace as necessary for jobsite, real-world safety, fairness and justice at this time?

    Charles Page

    • I like your idea- though I’m inclined to suggest it be applied in MY area of interest and expertise….mental health settings.

      You know, if there were enough of us all advocating for changes in our own workplaces, these problems could be addressed appropriately in pretty short order. We need to educate our co-workers and act as a community. Unions, are you listening?

      • I was thinking about health care settings. As for toxic leadership and bullying in the workplace, it can be said; “My name is Legion for I am many”

    • I think the infrastructure and support for such initiatives are strongest in health care right now. Nurses, educators, labor advocates, etc., are becoming clued into issues of bullying in health care.

      The legal profession? Not so much — as in highly unlikely. Maybe K-12 educators, where we’re seeing more workplace anti-bullying activities.

      • A recent survey of a healthcare region in my home province indicated that over 60% of workers were exposed to bullying in their workplace.


        I suspect that result is indicative of the breadth of the problem in that employment sector, not the region. We have chronic difficulties with recruitment and retention. To me it seems obvious that this is a systemic and political problem, not a large collection of personal or personality problems.

        Whether there is sufficient infrastructure and support to address this here remains to be seen. Clearly, many lives within and beyond the healthcare work force depend on it, given that employee engagement levels fall as psychological violence in the workplace rises. We cannot afford to minimize or downplay the impact of failure to address this. We depend on a responsive healthcare system, which depends on engaged and capable service providers, who depend on employers to protect and support them. When those employers fail, people die unnecessary deaths that destroy families and compromise communities.

  3. Great idea Charles! I know 9 people who committed suicide because of bullying in the workplace. It is a significant problem. These military suicides were troubling me because most of them never saw combat – which was the military’s stock response for the cause of military suicides. Perhaps bullying is MORE toxic than combat! We need continuing research into this link.

  4. Thanks all for the feedback. Kachina reminded me about my attempts to educate and advocate for progressive changes in our own workplaces.

    My attorney employers, knowing my interests in promoting maximum civility and anti-bullying attitudes in the workplace, provided me with a rental car so I could attend the forum at Laney College in Oakland in 2005 that with the Namies’ help resulted in a campus-wide anti-bullyiing policy. I was given a bunch of the forum’s anti-bullying literature to try and spread around and raise awareness in my northern Bay Area community.

    I gave some of the literature to my attorney emloyers and the result was that a workplace bullying policy was developed which every employee was supposed to sign off on. I’ve asked, but I still do not know who specifically created the policy, I can only guess. I know this sounds stange, it’s strange to me.

    Six months ago, i thought there was reason to highlight the importance of the policy and asked the new, somewhat authoritarian manager if employees were still required to be aware of and sign off on the anti-bullying policy. The new manager said that the Title 7 protections in the Employee Handbook were all that were needed.

    Subsequently, I sent to 4 members of management David Yamada’s most brilliant, succinct and appropriate quote: “Perceptions of organizational justice impact productivity and individual well-being. Careers, livelihoods, and paychecks are at stake, not to mention personal health and dignity.” I followed this up with sending every employee the history of our anti-bullying policy and David Yamada’s quote.

    As we were undergoing funding cutbacks at this time, I also sent around to every employee an option for spreading around the cutbacks in hours based on the employees’ union plan of cutbacks in the state agency that was our biggest grant funder.

    After 10 years working, and with management’s acknowledgement that my work itself was good, I was retaliatorily fired the next day for the trumped up excuse of using the organization’s email and copier to try and communicate a couple of good ideas which the Employee Handbook claimed they were always open to.

    I’ve suffered extreme trauma and stress for the last 6 months and even though I have applications out there, I need Congress to pass the 3 month extension so I can find another job.

    If there’s a psychologist or attorney out there who can or wants to make sense of this situation, I’d sure like to hear from them. So far, it’s made no sense to me and only seems to be an example of some people’s participation in the the unwinding of moral and civil society.

    Everybody’s welcome to copies of the anti-bullying policy history and suggestions I sent around. Just email me. Thanks,

    Charles Page

  5. Charles, I strongly encourage you to read the book titled “Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It” by Chauncey Hare and Judith Wyatt. It is an excellent resource for understanding dynamics at play in work abuse situations. It’s intense and builds on itself — not a book conducive to skimming. It’s worth the effort to study its concepts.

    I know what it’s like to want to make sense out of the injustice, etc. Best wishes.

  6. Thanks Dawn, your responding is much appreciated. As it turns out, I am familiar with Chauncey Hare and his and Judith Wyatt’s book. We’ve exchanged emails, and, it’s been a long while, but I think we’ve spoken on the phone.

    My advocacy for lawyers to take the lead in having workplace health and civility (anti-bullying) policies is because:
    1. IMPACT–they are some of the community’s most powerful leaders.

    2. Googling “lawyer” or “attorney” and “civility”, I found scads of references addressing a civility crisis in legal communities. Mostly it’s about civility with clients and in the courtroom, but there are all these bar association recommendations and requirements for civility as the prime, professional attribute of an attorney. And bar associations are disciplining attorneys who violate precepts of civility.

    3. Take a look at the Las Vegas, Nevada, Clark County’s Bar Assoc Pledge of Professionalism:


    There are 4 main sections, essentially about professional courtroom and client civility, but the last section contains this:

    “I will treat my office staff with courtesy and respect, and will encourage them to treat others in the same manner;”

    Hey, why not codify it in a legal workplace safety, health, civility and anti-bullying policy?

    The more attorneys who take this small act of leadership in workplace civility, the easier it will be to find legislators supporting the Healthy Workplace Bill.

    4. And, if an attorney is disciplined by the bar for lack of civility, why not require the establishment of a bullying policy in his or her workplace as an additional reminder that everyone deserves to be treated civily?

    Charles Page

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