Stand Up Against Bullying: A blog to help stop workplace bullying
Leadership Organizations

Does Your Leader Have What it Takes to Stop the Bully Culture?

Original Post Published on August 31, 2015; Edited and Republished November 29, 2021

No matter what type of organization you are in leadership matters. The role of a leader is crucial to the overall culture and functioning of an agency. Ideally, leaders are the glue that holds an organization together. They should be solving and preventing organizational problems, not creating, and sustaining them. Yet, often, leaders fail and instead of managing issues effectively, they are a like a bull in a glass shop, destroying everything in their way.

One of the reasons this happens in a bully culture is that leaders are rarely trained about workplace bullying and their role in it. Thus, leadership frequently overlooks the subtle messages that they send their workers which sets the stage for a work culture where persistent workplace aggression starts, flourishes, or makes it next to impossible to stop.

Leaders are role models and workers, both consciously and unconsciously, look towards administration to determine what is and is not acceptable workplace behavior. As such, leaders need to be aware of their behavior including their verbal and non-verbal messages. The behavior workers see from their leaders is what they deem as acceptable, and they will mimic it whether the leaders like it or not. It is vital that leaders ask themselves on a regular basis these questions:

  • Is the behavior I am portraying consistent with the organizational mission?
  • Is the behavior I am portraying behavior that is becoming of a leader?
  • Is the behavior I am portraying the behavior I want imitated by my workers?

If the answer is no to any of these questions, most likely the leader’s behavior is not becoming of their position and some action should be taken. If a leader wants professional behavior to be the norm in their organization, then they should be acting professional. Organizations with double standards for leaders and workers is setting themselves up for a bully culture. If a leader is participating in persistent workplace aggression, then it is likely that the workers mirror this type of behavior. If a leader wants good behavior amongst their workers, then they need to show good behavior. It is literally that simple.

I consulted with a group where the leader complained that their workers were not following policy. In my conversations with the workers, they reported that they heard their leader consistently saying things, such as, “I would rather ask forgiveness than permission” or “Rules don’t apply to me. I just do my own thing.” The leader repeatedly made decisions that were outside the scope of the organization’s mission and policies. Workers were under the assumption that this type of behavior was not only acceptable, but also expected based on their leader’s behavior. As such, it should not have been a shock for the leader to see that workers replicated that behavior. The workers did their own thing and did not follow policy. The leader of this group was totally blinded-sided by the workers behavior. They lacked the awareness of how their own behavior had on determining the culture of the workplace.

It is essential that leaders remember the importance of their role. They are not only the lead of the organization, but also are mentors, role models, and managers of the organization. Good leadership involves active listening and critical self-reflection.

Active listening is a vital skill in leadership that gets a great deal of lip service, but little true listening happens in organizations. Leaders typically express a strong desire for workers to come to them, but do not necessarily want to hear what workers are saying. In short, leaders struggle with active listening because it can be a double-edged sword. If I hear what workers are saying, then what do I do? Active listening does improve leadership and the overall organizational culture. It is worth the leader to invest in the development of active listening skills. This is a worthwhile skill both in and out of organizations.

Leaders also need to develop critical self-reflection skills to ensure that their own behavior is sending the messages that they want their workers to implement. Critical self-reflection includes understanding our own behavior and the influence it has on others. The other part of this is modifying and changing our behavior if it is influencing the workers and the organization negatively. A leader must be able to modify their skills based on the needs of the organization. A leader who is in capable of this, is never going to be an effective leader.

Leadership is hard work, but leaders can be taught active listening and critical reflection skills.

Call to action:
If you are a leader or an administrator, go into the breakroom and listen to what people are saying about you.
Invite your workers to provide you with anonymous feedback.
What are your workers saying?
What can you do to better meet their needs?