Kurtulmuş, B.E., “Toxic leadership and workplace bullying: The role of followers and possible coping strategies” (2020). The Palgrave Handbook of Workplace Well-Being, 1-20.
Background & Theory:
Although a clear definition of toxic leadership has not been fully agreed upon, past studies indicate that toxic leadership includes narcissistic, malevolent, manipulative, bullying, and enforcing behavior on behalf of the leader. On the other hand, workplace bullying can be defined as consistent and repeated employee exposure of aggressive negative acts that involve a perceived power imbalance, social exclusion by colleagues, and the creation of a hostile work environment. Both toxic leadership and workplace bullying are related, negatively affecting employees and organizations. This literature review focuses on the relationship between toxic leadership and workplace bullying, with a focus on the role of followers and coping strategies.
Research was consolidated by Bekir Emre Kurtulmuş to answer the following question:
- What effects do toxic leadership and workplace bullying have on employee and organizational well-being?
- What role do followers play in the existence of toxic leaders?
- What coping strategies do employees use to mitigate bullying-based harm?
Over 100 past research studies, books and other resources were utilized to create this literature review, published in The Palgrave Handbook of Workplace Well-Being in 2020.
Toxic leadership can lead to negative organizational and employee outcomes, including workplace deviance, lower job satisfaction, lower employee self-esteem, negative organizational attitudes, and psychological stress. The relationship between toxic leaders and their followers is complex, but may include elements of benefit maximization. Toxic leaders may desire and build their teams with passive and obedient employees for their benefit of controlling the workplace environment. Also, toxic leaders can be perceived by followers as strong, independent, and at times, autocratic, which can comfort employee psychological needs. However, toxic leadership often has negative effects on followers, including psychological, emotional, physical health issues. That being said, one of the most common practices of toxic leaders is workplace bullying.
Studies have pointed to the inequality of workplace bullying, showing that while bullying behavior is not statistically gender-specific in the United States, victims are more likely to self-identify as women. Additionally, 81% of bullies occupy higher-ranking positions. The cause of workplace bullying is varied, as both personal and contextual elements contribute to the creation of a workplace bully. In terms of personality, extroversion and neuroticism have significantly correlated with workplace bullying behavior. In terms of context, high-strain or chaotic environments can lead to greater workplace bullying behavior. Among employees, workplace bullying leads to lower job satisfaction, increased absenteeism, and negative effects on mental and emotional well-being.
Dealing with workplace bullying and toxic leadership should be addressed across the organization through anti-bullying organizational structures, policies, and procedures. However, in the case that the organization cannot completely dismantle workplace bullying and toxic leadership, employees often cope with the negative effects of bullying with coping strategies. Strategies like avoidance, doing nothing, seeking help, and assertiveness are common for employees trying to reduce bullying stress. Additionally, coping strategies often are either problem-focused or emotion-based. Problem-focused strategies typically entail altering the negative acts of bullies or directly addressing the bully. Emotion-based strategies typically involve playing the victim role and accepting sympathy from others.
What We Can Learn:
Looking over this research, we can take away the following key insight:
- Toxic leadership and subsequent workplace bullying undermine the health of employees and the organization as a whole. Followers provide a sense of legitimacy to toxic leaders that can promote workplace bullying. If the organizational strategy to reduce toxic leadership and workplace bullying fails, victims of toxic leadership often use emotion and problem-focused coping strategies to reduce the negative effects of bullying.
For Consultants: Consultants should consider the negative effects workplace bullying and toxic leadership have when offering conflict resolution training. Certain conflict management and resolution tools may be helpful to undermine workplace bullying efforts.
For Everyone: Workplace bullying can lead to detrimental health outcomes for the employee and organization. Finding ways to healthily cope with workplace-related stress is important for personal well-being.