Gloria Moss, March 2020
Recent days and weeks have seen unprecedented incidents of bullying hit the headlines. A CEO earmarked to lead the Samaritans, was sidelined after he apparently led a culture of bullying at the Alzheimer’s charity; then the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office resigned, claiming constructive dismissal and a climate of bullying in the Home Office, alleged to be part of ‘a wider pattern in government. Before that, we saw the resignation of a Chancellor of the Exchequer asked to dismiss his advisers.
At the root of these stories is autocratic leadership which uses power to bully others. In fact, this is Worst Practice Management which depresses productivity, motivation and mental well-being whilst pandering to the ego of the leader.
According to anti-bullying charity ‘Ditch the Label’, bullying is “an imbalance of power which is used to either defame, harass, intimidate or upset another person”. The incidence of this in different sectors appears to rising rapidly. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD,), 15% of workers have experienced bullying in the last three years, with a quarter of employees (24%) stating that issues like bullying and harassment are swept under the carpet in their organisation.
Many sectors bear witness to this. In 2018, for example, 13 per cent of staff in the NHS were bullied by managers and 19 per cent by other colleagues, figures that exceeded those in previous years. In schools, three in five young people in 2019 experienced bullying at school according to data from the leading anti-bullying charity The Diana Awards. In fact, alll state schools are required by law to have anti-bullying policies but “procedural guidelines are often non-existent” according to the National Bullying Helpline
In universities, the problem may be equally acute with the President of the Royal Society, describing bullying as ingrained in the culture of many academic institutions. Indeed, a recent survey revealed at Cambridge University revealed that one third of staff had allegedly experienced bullying and problems like this, across the sector, may explain the almost £90m in payoffs and gagging orders to university staff over two years.
Parts of the charity sector also appear affected. An investigation by the Guardian revealed a toxic culture at the Alzheimer’s Society with staff paid off to remain silent, and the Samaritans were said to be recovering from a toxic bullying culture when the appointment of the previous head of the Alzheimer Society as CEO was halted.
Regrettably, bullying and other abuse has financial and emotional costs. In terms of financial effects, the costs of sickness absence and employee turnover can be high, costing the NHS t at least £2.28bn every year for example. Then, the World Bank (1999) has highlighted the link between economic development and a climate of trust and social cohesion and so the costs to organisations and society in terms of lost productivity and motivation are incalculable. Of course, the costs in terms of mental well-being are acute with careers destroyed and confidence slashed.
There are numerous forces at play both within and beyond organisations. In terms of organisations, the quality of senior leadership is absolutely key, with evidence that this shapes the organisation’s culture and approach to people, whether employees or customers. So, an autocratic, distant leader is more likely to breed bullying than an inclusive one and this sends alarm bells to sectors such as Higher Education in which Command and Control leadership has been identified as the norm in several studies. Indeed, in a study that I conducted, funded by the then Leadership Foundation for Higher Education only 5% of students in one British university could name the Vice-Chancellor.
Underpinning this remote style of leadership is perhaps the widespread problem of inadequate training with only two fifths (40%) of line managers receiving people management training. A further problem can lie in the recruitment process with interviewers not trained to test for competencies that will produce healthier workplaces.
In terms of elements beyond the organisations, these include societal norms. One of these is inflated individualism that emphasises ego (the ‘I’) at the expense of the collective (the ‘we’), something that progressively a society’s fund of ‘Social Capital. For, unlike Physical Capital that wears out with use, there is a view that Social Capital ‘does not wear out with use, but rather with disuse” (Ostrom). So, alarmingly, once the habit of treating people with respect stops, Social Capital disappears.
What can be done? Only the appointment of a top team with emotional intelligence and an inclusive style of leadership will put a halt to this scourge. Remarkably, several British organisations are leading the way with the most remarkable- for example Page Group, Royal Mail Sales and Sevenoaks School – profiled in my book ‘Inclusive Leadership’. Their actions produce a ‘Win win’ situation with higher productivity and higher customer satisfaction.
On the other side of the pond, a touching example comes from the American CEO who in 2016 put all employees on a salary (himself included) of $70,000 and increased their autonomy. The staff were so motivated that they bought him a top-of–the range car and company profitability in 2019 went through the roof.
Of course, if all else fails, organisations can use the tried and tested method of 360 degree feedback to flush out the bullies. Done well, this will identify the bullies that destroy organisations, people and sustainable development.
Gloria Moss, PhD FCIPD, is a former Training Manager of Courtaulds and Eurotunnel. She is a Professor of Management and Marketing specialising in creating positive working cultures and is the author of ‘Inclusive Leadership’ (Routledge)
This article was published on Linked-In on March 5th, 2020