executive coaching,  Gary,  publications,  Teresa,  toxic workplace

Toxic Leadership in Context

A sizeable body of research and other literature has been developing about toxic leadership and workplace bullying. Our earlier work found distinctions between tough bosses and true bullies in the workplace. A later study showed that military officers were able to clearly identify differences between tough but effective leaders, and toxic leaders. That work was extended into the organizational climates which seem to promote toxic leaders and bullies. Other colleagues have explored potentials for changes in bullying behavior through executive coaching interventions, noting that some executives simply lack awareness of their behaviors, or the effects on those around them. The focus of this paper is the synthesis of earlier findings, to begin a more systemic understanding about the relationships between individual, organizational, and societal behaviors with respect to bullying and toxic leadership.

Bullying is a behavior which has raised increasing attention in recent years. In 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Department of Education, together, released the first uniform definition of bullying at the federal level (http://www.stopbullying.gov/news/media/fact /index.html#listing). This effort was directed at bullying in schools, and cites research finding that between one quarter and one third of youth reported being bullied at school. Bullying happens most frequently during middle school (grades 6 to 8 in most U.S. school districts), is more often verbal and social than physical, and is most frequently targeted at those who are considered “different” (e.g. lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, etc.) Just over 70% of students and school staff each report having witnessed bullying events at school. According to a 2014 national survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 27% of U.S. workers had direct past or current experience with abusive conduct at work (http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbi-2014-us-survey/). And much like in schools, about 72% of the American public is aware of workplace bullying.

The position taken in this paper is that there is no simple cause-and-effect relationship which explains bullying or toxic leadership. They are not just matters of individual deficiencies, whether meanness, or poor genetics, or a bad upbringing. They are also not directly the fault of mechanistic corporations, or bureaucratic institutions, or a failing society. There are too many variations in the behaviors and relationships – at least as understood thus far. Individuals with similar backgrounds and characteristics act out those traits quite differently throughout their lifetimes. Likewise, individuals react to the same circumstances in many different ways.

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