Organizational authenticity and workplace bullying

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I’d like to offer a proposition: Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse are much less likely to occur in organizations that embrace and practice authenticity.

This statement requires some unpacking, but I think the inquiry itself is worthy of our consideration.

First, let’s adopt a definition. Management consultant and scholar C.V. Harquail defines an “authentic organization” this way on her Authentic Organizations website:

An organization is authentic when its actions, its character, and its sense of purpose are aligned with and support each other.

Dr. Harquail further elaborates that an authentic organization “actively supports its members, customers, and constituencies in their own authenticity as they work with the organization to achieve its purpose.”

More informally, I read this definition as saying that an organization is authentic when it is comfortable in its own skin. This quality, of course, must come from and extend to key organizational leaders. 

When organizations and people are not comfortable in their own skins, then they are out of alignment. This can fuel insecurities and conflicts (internal and external) that, in turn, lead to bullying and similar behaviors.

Think about it: If you’ve experienced or observed workplace bullying, mobbing, or abuse, did it occur in an organization that had its act together, or did it occur in one that was dysfunctional and felt, well, kind of shaky? When assessing individual instances of bullying, understandably we often focus on specific tormenters. However, it’s highly unlikely that they could get away with it while working in an authentic organization. In fact, at such an organization, they might not even be on the payroll to begin with, right?

11 responses

  1. Perfectly described, the organisation is completely dysfunctional at the top and may even be tyrranical. Volunteers all.

    • I agree in concept with that idea. I also contend that these stated behaviors are a form of corruption and an agency problem that interferes with the optimum / best use of resources which compromises enterprise performance. The provided definition of authentic to be when an enterprise actions, character, and its sense of purpose are aligned with and support each other. This would seem to also be the definition of sound leadership of a performance oriented enterprise.

  2. David, I would counter-propose that “authenticity” often becomes a problem because the leaders’ or the dominant personalities’ definition of “authenticity” is the only acceptable one within the organization. If others in the organization don’t display the behaviours or attitudes that are considered to be “authentic” on those terms, then abuse or bullying may be directed at them. I suspect that “authentic” could be found in the verbiage or cultures of many organizations with dysfunctional or abusive workplaces.

    • Fiona, you make a good point, and this may boil down to definitions. Arguably, an organization with such a narrow realm of claimed authenticity can be so inflexible as to exclude those who don’t conform. I’d fall back on Harquail’s standard that supporting people in their own authenticity is part of the broader organizational responsibility. However, “authenticity” can become just as easy a proclaimed-but-not-practiced buzzword as “transparent” (my “favorite” from academic admins), “inclusive,” and “diverse.” 🙂

  3. I agree in concept with that idea. I also contend that these stated behaviors are a form of corruption and an agency problem that interferes with the optimum / best use of resources which compromises enterprise performance. The provided definition of authentic to be when an enterprise actions, character, and its sense of purpose are aligned with and support each other. This would seem to also be the definition of sound leadership of a performance oriented enterprise.

  4. In healthcare the perfect example is of “leadership” saying we’re all about patient care but they really are about The bottom line. Nurses and physicians are there to care for patients. When the bottom line objective conflicts with the patient care objective, the leadership will go into full-on defensive mode, PR tactics, trying to convince the public that they are about patient care while nurses and physicians have to do more wi less, decreasing patient safety, and leading to staff burnout. This way, the nurses and physicians’ obligation to nonmaleficience ” do no harm” becomes harder to maintain, and the organization ends up doing more harm than good. No one ever stops for self-examination or contemplation of what’s going on in the big picture.

    • Thank you for writing. In higher education, we hear a very similar rap about being “student-centered,” which in most cases is accompanied by (drum roll) cuts in resources and “streamlining” of services.

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