Coaching for workplace bullies and toxic bosses?


Roy Williams, blogging for the International Coach Federation, writes about toxic, bullying leaders, their impact on organizations, and coaching as an intervention:

We are witnessing the rise of toxic leaders and workplaces. We tend to choose or follow a very different kind of leader. We hire and promote the psychopaths, the narcissists, the bullies and the autocrats dedicated to self-interest.

…In my last two decades as an executive coach, working mostly with senior executives and CEOs in both private and public organizations, I’ve seen a disproportionate share of toxic leaders who continue to do harm to their employees and their organizations, despite all our knowledge about what constitutes good leadership, particularly with reference to emotional intelligence, humility and compassion. Working with toxic leaders and those who work with them presents a real challenge to coaches—one that raises the bar for success.

Within the workplace anti-bullying community, opinions vary on the effectiveness of coaching for workplace aggressors. For what it’s worth, here is my nutshell sense of this question: Many abrasive leaders can be coached to be more respectful of their co-workers and more mindful of how their words and actions are being perceived. However, many abusive leaders — especially those presenting traits suggestive of psychopathy, sociopathy, or severe narcissism — will not change their ways with coaching. In fact, some may actually use coaching as a way of picking up “tips” on how to disguise and cloak their harmful intentions.

Of course, short of a thorough clinical diagnosis and behavioral assessment, it may be difficult to make such distinctions. Furthermore, especially when the alleged aggressor is a boss or high-level executive, HR or other internal stakeholders may be reluctant to suggest such an evaluation.


Related posts

Can personal coaching help targets of workplace bullying? (2014) — “As I wrote last year, targets of workplace bullying may go through four stages in their journey to a better place: Recognition, response, recovery, and renewal. Mental health counseling may be especially helpful in helping targets recover from conditions such as depression and PTSD. But coaching can help targets in the other three stages, including identifying options and taking action in the non-clinical realm and serving as a source of encouragement and support.”

Words rarely heard: “Boss, I think you need to get some help” (2013) — “The hierarchical nature of our workplaces often means that managers, supervisors, and executives who engage in bullying and other aggressive behaviors will not be referred to counseling or mental health services, and their suffering co-workers will continue to pay the price. Let’s take a look at why this is so.”

Tough boss vs. workplace bully: Malice makes the difference (2009) — “Distinguishing between tough management styles and workplace bullying is a frequent topic of conversation among those who deal with employment relations. In the June issue of HR Magazine, published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Teresa Daniel provides a summary of her doctoral research on workplace bullying that identifies malice as the linchpin factor….”


Free blog subscription

For a free subscription to Minding the Workplace, go to “Follow this blog” at the top right of the home page, and enter your e-mail address.

2 responses

  1. Because California’s AB 2053 is so important for workplace civility progress and the protection of employees from abusive behavior, and because the crux of defining abusive behavior is the phrase “with malice”, I decided I’d try to understand what that meant. I researched the net, borrowed some definitions and writings of others, and put together the following outline on “malice”:

    CA AB 2053 (Gonzalez): Mandatory Supervisor Training on Harassment, Bullying, and Abusive Behavior

    The bill defines abusive conduct:
    “…abusive conduct” means conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests.”

    By this statute, “abusive conduct” may include:
    – repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets,
    – verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating,
    – or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.”

    On its face, AB 2053 appears to address intentional, bullying-type behavior in the workplace.

    The definition of MALICE is:
    – the intention or desire to do evil; ill will
    – the desire to inflict injury, harm, or suffering on another, either because of a hostile impulse or out of deep-seated meanness
    – maliciousness, malevolence, from Latin malitia, malus “bad,” “evil”
    – quality of being cruel, mean, morally wrong
    – animosity, hostility

    Antonyms for MALICE:
    – benevolence, good will, kindness, respect

    Respect, as all the anti-bullying websites, whether school or workplace related, say: “The bottom line is treating everyone with dignity and respect.”

    So if respect is the opposite of malice, and malice is evil, then respect is good and disrespect is bad.

    Quite simply, “Disrespect is Evil”.
    In other words, disrespect is the doorway to all forms of Malice (intentionally inflicted harm).
    Sinister people are evil people that hide their motives from their victims.
    Diabolical people deliberately incite Fear, Anger, Smear, Greed, Panic, and Outrage in some people, often through rumors, for the purpose of causing them to disrespect or harm others.

    Defining Respect
    Respect is the understanding that a person’s well-being and autonomy are important.
    · What can we do to avoid harming a person?
    · What can we do to avoid limiting a person’s choices?
    · What can we do to promote a person’s health, autonomy and well-being?

    Disrespect (Evil) is any of the following notions:
    · That a person’s well being is of no concern.
    · That a person’s right to make choices is of no concern.
    · That a person’s feelings may be dismissed.
    · That a person may be harmed.
    · That a person may be exploited.
    · That a person may be abused – bothered, annoyed, threatened, intimidated, humiliated, or traumatized.
    · That a person may be disparaged.
    · That a person may be manipulated or dominated.

    It follows, then, that an evil person holds any of the above notions to be true.

    If evil and disrespect are the same, then it also follows that respect and good are equivalent.

    So, a good person is a respectful person that:
    · Believes that a person’s well being is important and should be protected and promoted.
    · Believes that a person’s autonomy should be protected and promoted.
    · Believes that a person’s feelings should not be dismissed.
    · Believes that a person should not be harmed.
    · Believes that a person should not be exploited.
    · Believes that a person should not be abused – bothered, annoyed, threatened, humiliated, intimidated, or traumatized.
    · Believes that a person should not be disparaged.
    · Believes that a person should not be manipulated or dominated.

    The use of the word “evil” in this outline is comparable to Google’s condensation of workplace professional ethics, regulations, morality, and HR policies into their motto, “Don’t Be Evil.”

    Narcissists and sociopaths/psychopaths who lack the will and/or facility to either cognitively or emotionally empathize with others, understand and respect the feelings of others, or consider how another will react to their behavior, are prone to workplace bullying, abusive behavior, and psychological violence. Dr. Gary Namie and other psychologists seem to agree that the effects of psychological violence are harder to deal with and longer lasting than physical violence. So, shouldn’t our legal and socio-political condemnation of psychological violence reflect this? And shouldn’t we be that much more willing to come to the aid of victims of psychological abuse/violence?

  2. David I agree and I can assure you that many of us share in this theory. There are those who can improve their skills, gain insight, and change, and then there are those who are incapable.

    Imagine a a seasoned psychologist who is a narcissist/psychopath with many skills to disguise and cloak based on his/her training in humanities. Then add anti bullying coaching tips and their repertoire is lethal. Throw in a HR bully and a CEO recovering from mobbing (previous position). The CEO is manipulated to feel sorry for the psychologist bully and HR wants to make a good impression.

    The target(s) cannot win. The target ‘is’ in danger.

    I offer clinical therapy for those who are affected by these lethal, complex types. I find many to be similar to rape cases or domestic violence syndrome. Many describe their experience as psychological rape. Their symptoms certainly are consistent.

    How likely are we to obtain a clinical diagnosis and behavioral assessment from the person I just described about. I know you understand. Until he/she is caught, or someone dies, he/she will simply continue to diminish people and remain protected by his employer.

    As you say said so well, “it will be difficult ……..when the alleged aggressor is a boss or high-level executive, HR or other internal stakeholders may be reluctant to suggest such an evaluation”.
    Linda R. Crockett

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: