Aspiring leaders must learn to deal with workplace bullying

Olav Kjellevold Olsen, Kari Wik Ågotnes

Business schools take heed.

For any leader, overcoming situations with high work pressure is an important skill. Work pressure increases the risk of interpersonal conflict and bullying, which in turn is linked to low motivation, high turnover, and decreased performance.

We studied how exactly work pressure is related to daily experiences of bullying-related acts, as well as the interaction with different leadership styles: transformational leadership or laissez-faire leadership.

Transformational leadership involves paying more attention to employees’ needs for achievement and providing social support, whereas laissez-faire leadership involves a more passive and destructive approach, leaving followers to their own devices in situations that require leadership the most.

Bullying at sea

We collected data from Norwegian naval cadets from a Military University College. During the data collection, the cadets were in the process of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a tall ship as part of their education and training.

Using this sample of participants provided a unique opportunity to conduct the study in a shifting yet continuous work environment: the cadets were socially isolated from the outside world for an extended period of time with limited external communications.

The cadets were also continuously interacting with each other with limited opportunities to be alone, living in close quarters and sleeping in hammocks side by side. During their voyage, 61 of the cadets completed a daily survey measuring variations in work pressure, leadership behaviour, and exposure to bullying-related acts over 36 consecutive days.

Our findings demonstrated that on days in which individuals reported higher work pressure, they also experienced more bullying behaviours from peers. This indicates that bullying and other negative behaviours are consequences of problems in the work environment.

The relationship between daily pressure at work and exposure to bullying was stronger on days when the participants reported higher levels of laissez-faire leadership. These would include days where the leader avoided intervening or helping employees manage stressful work situations.

This suggests workplace bullying and harassment particularly flourish in environments with unfavourable working conditions and inadequate leadership.

Implications for management training

In business schools, courses tend to emphasise the positive outcomes of leadership; in other words, what it takes to create good results. However, we know from previous research, as well as from our findings, that negative experiences may have stronger impacts on employee cooperation and performance than positive experiences. Which is to say, bad is stronger than good. It is important to keep this in mind when teaching leadership in business education.

Traditionally the focus of most leadership and managerial training programs has been the acquisition of individual knowledge, skills, and abilities. What appears to be lacking in such programs is an awareness of passive-avoidant destructive leadership behaviours such as laissez-faire leadership, and the development of strategies for reducing such behaviour. This point seems striking based on our finding that laissez-faire leadership behaviour facilitated the development of workplace bullying.

Business schools should strive to measure these variables in their own study environment. This will enable the students to use the results as the basis for a discussion about what this means for them, and what they can do to improve their own learning environment.

It is also important to provide theory and tools for the prevention of bullying and harassment, such as the development of a safe and inspiring workplace or the restoration of the work environment in the form of either dialogue-based conflict management or formal legal-based strategies. Case-based learning strategies can also be employed here – linked to dialogue about triggering conditions and strategies for managing conflict situations – based on the leadership role.

Source: Daily work pressure and exposure to bullying-related negative acts: The role of daily transformational and laissez-faire leadership

Published 26. April 2021

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