Poor management the biggest risk factor for workplace bullying

September 11, 2022

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Poor management the biggest risk factor for workplace bullying

Workplace bullying affects one in 10 employees, costing global employers billions of dollars every year in absenteeism, stress leave and lost productivity. And it is rapidly increasing.

Now researchers have developed an evidence-based screening tool that identifies nine major risk areas for workplace bullying embedded in day-to-day practices, putting the onus on organizations to address the problem. In a paper published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, the researchers offer a new way of tackling bullying at work.

They analyzed 342 real-life bullying complaints lodged with government authorities, 60 per cent of them from female employees. The highest number of complaints were from health and community services, property and business, and the retail sector. The complaints revealed the risk areas for bullying in organizations.

What the researchers say: “Workplace bullying predominantly shows up in how people are managed,” the lead author told us. “Managing work performance, coordinating working hours and entitlements, and shaping workplace relationships are key areas that organizations need to focus on. It can be tempting to see bullying as a behavioral problem between individuals, but the evidence suggests that bullying actually reflects structural risks in the organizations themselves.

The researchers say that existing strategies, such as anti-bullying policies, bullying awareness training, incident reporting and investigating complaints, focus on behavior between individuals and overlook workplace structures.

“Workplace bullying undermines the functioning of employees and organizations alike. It leads to mental health problems, post-traumatic stress symptoms, emotional exhaustion, poor job satisfaction, high staff turnover, low productivity, sleep problems and even suicide risks,” the lead author said. “To prevent bullying, organizations must proactively assess and mitigate the underlying risk factors, like other systematic risk management processes. Only then will an organization thrive.”

So, what? I have written a lot about bullying over the years and one of the things that I stress is this issue of organization culture and leadership.

In individuals, bullying is sometimes a result of genetics or early development, or both, and to a large extent these individuals cannot help being bullies—it’s hardwired in. In others, the tendency to be bullies is genetic but latent, and is allowed for, or even encouraged, by the organization that they work for.

It’s often not fully realized that most male bullies are in leadership or supervisory positions—they are promoted quicker and have higher salaries than their victims or other non-bullies. An organization must look at its’ hiring and promotion practices in order to eliminate leader-bullies.

The style of leadership that’s predominant in an organization is also important if bullying is to be reduced or eliminated. The more transactional—the more “do as I say”—the leadership, the higher the rate of bullying and harassment. Other leadership styles are not nearly so encouraging of bullying.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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