Workplace bullying and mobbing: Individual vs. organizational accountability

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

So here’s my question for today: When you think about accountability for workplace bullying and mobbing, do you think more about individual aggressors or about the organizations that hire and keep them on the payroll?

Of course, the pat response — in fact, the right one, I’d argue — is both. But I’d submit that the calculus is not uniform, and that the perch from where we sit may determine our personal answers. Here are a few of my observations on this question:

  • Bullying and mobbing behaviors are typically targeted and personalized. Sometimes the motivations for the abuse are transparent. But often they are not. Furthermore, they may not be rational, in that the underlying reason(s) for the abuse can be explained in a way that easily makes sense. Figuring out motivations sometimes can be a challenge for a targeted worker, adding to the confusion and bewilderment of the experience and sharpening the focus on specific aggressor(s).
  • Nevertheless, as intensely interpersonal as these behaviors may become, they usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference. This applies specially to mobbing, which requires multiple players, often aided by institutional mechanisms.
  • For an individual targeted by bullying or mobbing, the natural focus is on the closest abusers and tormenters. However, the target often recognizes the organizational dynamic when reaching out for help and finding that little or no genuine assistance is available.
  • If we want to prevent and stop bullying and mobbing at work, the first view should be organizational and systems-based, looking especially at top leadership and workplace culture. Bullying and mobbing rarely thrive at organizations committed to treating their employees with a baseline of dignity and to hiring workers who share that commitment.

For those interested in the legal side, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill that I’ve authored recognizes both organizational and individual responsibility for creating abusive work environments. Under my template version of the legislation, those who have been subjected to severe workplace bullying may pursue claims against both their employer and the individual tormenters. Furthermore, in recognition of the overall role played by employers, the legislation includes liability-reducing incentives for employers that act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors.

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?

From the archives: Some overlooked nuggets

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

Minding the Workplace now covers some eight years of blogging, including nearly 1,500 articles posted. Many of these pieces have staying power thanks to Internet search engines; articles from years ago continue to attract page views as a result. But some pieces don’t get many search “hits,” even if they’re still relevant. I’ve gathered ten of these articles from the middle years of this blog (2011-2014). None rank among the 250 most-read posts, but I believe they’re worth reading. I hope you’ll agree!

Selective praise as a form of workplace marginalization (2014) — “Have you ever worked in an organization where some people receive lavish praise from higher ups for the most modest of achievements, while others do remarkable things but receive, at best, an obligatory nod from the folks in charge?”

Understanding the Holocaust (and why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces) (2014) — “Allusions to the Holocaust, Nazis, Hitler, and the like must be offered carefully. This includes discussions involving employee relations. Even terrible workplaces are not concentration camps. But I respectfully suggest that these comparisons are important and useful when severe workplace bullying and abuse are under examination.”

Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying (2014) — “Spreading malicious gossip is among the most frequent bullying tactics used, especially by those who demonstrate psychopathic qualities. Calculatedly and without conscience, they plant the seeds in casual conversations and e-mails: Oh, you know what I heard? Guess what so-and-so told me. You can’t share this with anyone, but….”

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.”

On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? (2013) — “We talk about good leaders who strive to create healthy organizational cultures, the places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who crack the whip, bully, and treat others as expendable parts. But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations?”

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (2012) — “It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.”

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (2012) — “Are bullying and related behaviors concentrated within a smaller number of toxic workplaces? . . . The concept of a cancer cluster has led me think about whether we can designate specific workplaces as “bullying clusters.” If we can, is there value in doing so?”

Can workplace incivility ever be healthy? (2011) — “Those of us who study workplaces generally assume that incivility is a bad thing. After all, an interaction involving incivility can ruin a work day, especially if it comes from your boss. At times, incivility can elevate into active disrespect and even bullying. . . . However, there are times when incivility may be an understandable consequence of a disagreement or difference of opinion. Such exchanges — often marked by the use of otherwise rude, harsh, or offensive words — can clear the air, hopefully paving the way toward a healthy resolution.”

How lousy organizations treat institutional history (2011) — “How do lousy organizations treat their own institutional history? In other words, how do they treat their past, recent or otherwise?”

Loyalty, “betrayal,” and workplace bullying: Does insider status matter? (2011) — “Suppose an employee openly disagrees with a position taken by her boss. Does her status as an insider or outsider impact the likelihood of being bullied by the boss? In other words, is a boss more likely to bully a “disloyal” subordinate who is part of his inner circle or favored group versus one who is not?”

“Post-truths” at work and management messaging

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Alison Flood reports for The Guardian newspaper that “Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘post-truth’ to be its international word of the year.” She continues:

Defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors said that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year. The spike in usage, it said, is “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.

I couldn’t help but think of popular “post-truths” circulated by some employers to their rank-and-file workers:

  • “We’re all in this together.”
  • “Each and every employee matters to us.”
  • “We’d hate for a union to come in and interfere with the direct communications we enjoy with our valued employees.”
  • “We’re absolutely committed to equal opportunity.”
  • “Don’t worry, you can trust the HR office with all of your concerns.”
  • “Think of us as one big family here.”

I’m sure that readers can add their own post-truths to this list.

Of course, at some workplaces, many of these statements actually apply. But in too many places of employment, the more you hear them, the less truth they happen to carry. 

Searching for great bosses

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For better or worse, it may be easy to find a bad boss, but how do we engage the search for that seemingly more elusive good boss?

Isvari Mohan, in a piece for the Boston Globe, reports on a 10-year study by management professor Sydney Finkelstein (Dartmouth) that included over 200 interviews — all in a quest to identify the qualities of great bosses and how to find them. A few highlights from the Globe piece:

  • “Great bosses roll up their sleeves and work closely with their employees. They are ambitious, drivers of change, interested in the message of the company, and willing to delegate authority.”
  • “Superbosses are geniuses at helping other people accomplish more than they thought possible, and they focus on generating talent on a continuous basis, says Finkelstein. They want to see you leave and do well; they optimize talent flow, not talent retention. They find unlikely winners to hire. They don’t care about traditional resumes.”
  • “Finkelstein says there are three groups [of great bosses]: iconoclasts like Jon Stewart who are so obsessed with their jobs that their dedication motivates others; glorious bastards like Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp. who are driven by a desire to win and know they need talent to do so; and nurturers like cosmetics queen Mary Kay Ash who simply like helping others get ahead.”

Finkelstein’s findings appear in his new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent (2016). I look forward to checking it out.

Faithful readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time talking about bad bosses, especially those whose behaviors cross into the realm of bullying and abuse. It’s also vitally important, of course, that we talk about the qualities that make for good bosses, so we can have something to aspire to for ourselves and our co-workers.

Here are some previous posts that offer more commentary on this topic:

What makes for good bosses, leaders, and workplaces? (2015)

Positive qualities of my best bosses (2012)

You want good leaders? (2010)

 

The mantra of bad organizations: “That’s in the past, forget about it, let’s move on”

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When a dysfunctional organization seeks to move on from one failed chapter to the next, one of its biggest challenges is ensuring that the mistakes, miscues, and injustices of the immediate past disappear. After all, accountability can be brutal, especially for those in charge, so why must the previous events and actions muddy up everyone’s boundless excitement for the glorious future?

Thus, the message is sent from on high: It’s a brand new day. We can’t afford to dwell upon the past. Let’s move forward with our great new leadership ideas initiatives slogans!

Those who aren’t on board with the regime facade change may be marginalized or worse. They may even vanish and be rendered unpersons to help erase institutional memories that are best forgotten.

This pattern occurs over and again at lousy organizations in every sector — public, private, and non-profit. It is the tactical refuge of bad leaders who somehow get repeated chances to screw up. Sadly, it also appeals to the words of philosopher George Santayana quoted above, for organizations that cannot remember their past are surely doomed to repeat it, typically with recurring negative consequences.

Psychological safety and the successful workplace

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Aamna Mohdin writes for Quartz earlier this year on Google’s research efforts to identify the keys to creating successful work teams. The answer turned out to be pretty simple:

Google’s data-driven approach ended up highlighting what leaders in the business world have known for a while; the best teams respect one another’s emotions and are mindful that all members should contribute to the conversation equally. It has less to do with who is in a team, and more with how a team’s members interact with one another.

Consequently, says Mohdin, “Google now describes psychological safety as the most important factor to building a successful team.”

Or, to put it another way, it’s about valuing human dignity on the job. It’s about embracing the Golden Rule at work. It’s about trying to be inclusive and fair.

The flipside, of course, is when incivility, exclusion, harassment, and bullying enter the picture. Psychologically safe organizations have a culture that discourages these behaviors, but what happens when they occur? The true authenticity of that culture is revealed by how these situations are handled, individually and organizationally.

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Hat tip to Cosette Chichirau for Quartz piece on Google.

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