Workplace Bullying – A Failure of Leadership

Workplace Bullying – A Failure of Leadership

“A bad leader can kill a good process.” - Rixio Medina

by Terry McSween, Ph.D.

Those of you familiar with behavior-based safety know that organizational trust is a basic element that is critical to a successful safety improvement effort. Employees have to know that they can openly and honestly discuss safety issues without fear of reprisal. The use of fear as a motivator destroys trust and is contrary to the whole philosophy of creating a positive workplace that promotes safety. Bullying is the term we often use to describe the activities of leaders who rely too heavily on fear and negative consequences in a misguided attempt to motivate employees to perform well.


Workplace bullying is repeated mistreatment of employees, often by someone in a leadership position. It often takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference—sabotage—which prevents work from getting done

Bullying is systematic abuse of authority between the bully and one or more of his or her direct reports. It damages the working relationship between the leader and employees and destroys trust within the organization. It ultimately has a significant negative impact on performance of the organizational unit. Bullying often causes employees to feel anxious, depressed, fearful, lose sleep, develop headaches and stomachaches, create self-doubt and anger, and can even result in symptoms commonly seen in post-traumatic stress syndrome. Bullying may also take place between peers in the workplace. The primary focus of this article is on bullying by someone in a leadership position within an organization.


Workplace bullying is typically the overuse of a variety of negative consequences without sufficient positive consequences to maintain a balanced, constructive relationship. It is abusive not helpful, and may involve any of the following:

  • Aggressive communication, such as insulting someone or shouting—whether in private, in front of colleagues, or in front of other people
  • Being disrespectful or humiliating someone, such as belittling, calling them names, harsh teasing, spreading rumors or gossip, or making someone feel unimportant
  • The use of sarcasm
  • Blaming employees for honest mistakes or mistakes that aren’t their fault
  • Excessive monitoring
  • Constant nitpicking/criticizing/flying off the handle especially over trivial or minor matters or mistakes
  • Making someone feel bad and ashamed
  • Deliberately overloading someone with work
  • Excluding someone from normal workplace/staffroom conversations and making someone feel unwelcome (this also includes cliques)

While we’ve all experienced some of these behaviors at some point at work, they become bullying when they occur frequently. Bullying is not a one-time event; it is on-going abuse that occurs every week and often becomes more aggressive over time. Bullies can be company owners and partners, senior executives, line managers, supervisors, or other frontline employees. Bullies can be either male or female. 

Why Do Managers and Supervisors Behave Badly

Often managers and supervisors respond in anger or frustration. Their anger and frustration may be created by work pressures in the system they work in.  Often, the pressure from their leadership and/or customers creates a predisposition to respond emotionally when problems occur. The angry supervisor lashes out in anger at a mistake made by employees who are simply doing the best they can.

In other cases, a manager or supervisor may have learned bad habits from bosses in past jobs. Some industries are almost characterized by heavy handed management practices that most of us would not call leadership. In doing contract work on turnarounds, for example, management personnel do not have to develop long-term working relationships with their crews. They can rely on pressure and threats to get the job done quickly, then, in three months when the job ends, they go on to the next job somewhere else with a new and different crew. Such environments do not foster the growth and development of leaders that promote positive long-term working relationships.

Furthermore, some of our training and the way we view the role of leaders may be to blame. We often characterize the role of leaders as one predominately of problem-solving. Too often, their job becomes one of identifying and solving problems. The result is that all of their time is spent attending to problems, not supporting and developing their top performers.

The Business Impact

One of the biggest problems with a reliance on negative consequence to motivate employees at work is that it simply generates minimal performance. Employees will do just enough to get by. The use of criticism, threats, and other forms of punishment simply will not result in exemplary performance.  Without positive consequences and effective working relationships, the best an organization can achieve is mediocrity.

The use of negative consequences also generates emotional responses that are counter-productive in the workplace.  When employees are angry, they are more likely to make errors that create quality problems. Furthermore, both the resulting distraction and emotional state puts employees at greater risk of having a workplace injury. In other cases, employees who are bullied may also be more likely to engage in workplace violence, destroy property, conduct acts of vandalism, or sabotage the work in other ways. 

Finally, workplace bullying creates turnover, particularly among skilled employees. Those who qualify for other opportunities simply leave rather than put up with continued abuse. The result is an ongoing cycle of abuse. Often, poor performance prompts a supervisor to respond in a heavy handed way. As the good performers leave, performance grows worse, prompting even more anger and frustration on the part of supervision.

Organizational studies have shown that the biggest predictor of turnover is the relationship between an employee and his immediate supervisor. When the relationship is a good one, employees stay. When supervision is abusive, employees are more likely to leave. Retention thus becomes one of the best metrics to identify pockets of bullying in an organization.

The solution to this problem is good leadership. It involves:

  • Modeling positive leadership from the top
  • Ensuring that positive leadership cascades down through the organization
  • Identification and coaching (or ultimately, removal) of bullies
  • Empowering employees with effective responses to help address the problem

We’ll explore these in greater detail next month!


This website uses cookies that are necessary to its functioning and required to achieve the purposes illustrated in the privacy policy. By accepting this OR scrolling this page OR continuing to browse, you agree to our privacy policy.