Workplace Bullying: An Adaptive Leadership Challenge

By Moira Jenkins PhD.

Bullying is the key workplace health and safety issue of our time. It can affect anyone in any job, regardless of what task they perform, what kind of people they work with, or of what industry they are part of. These issues are not easy and they need to be tackled head on, rather than ignored until they become so unbearable for people that they cannot face going to work i.

The challenges we face in preventing and managing workplace bullying, discrimination and harassment, cannot be solved by our current ways of thinking about, and tackling, the problem. We are a a country that prides itself on the values of ‘mateship’, fair go’ and equality of opportunity, with over 25 years of anti-discrimination laws, and valiant efforts to draw attention to the impact of harmful workplace behaviours. However, bullying and harassment still persist in many Australian organisations. Moving towards a workplace culture that truly embraces notions of ‘fair go’ and ‘mateship’ means that we need to move away from the notion that workplace bullying and harassment will be fixed by tougher laws, increased penalties and regulation. We need to embrace a new paradigm of organisational leadership, and move towards a leadership culture that emphasises respect, sees difference and diversity as a source of innovation and energy, and truly understands that workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination not only impacts on a business financial bottom line, but are selfish, self-serving, behaviours and an antipathy to organisational development and innovation.

We live in a time where it is becoming more common for job descriptions to be less clear, for job roles to evolve with time, where work is less secure, and where global trends and cultural norms challenge the traditional ‘Australian’ way of doing work. The tradition of seeking answers from the law makers and authority figures within our organisations is also being eroded, as we come to realise that just as our political leaders don’t have all the answers, neither do our workplace CEO’s, directors or managers (and neither they should). More and more we are coming to the conclusion that we can no longer assume that yet another ‘solution focused approach’ or ‘technical fix’ will stop bullying or harassment. History highlights an increasing multiplicity of laws, policy frameworks and attempts to provide a myriad of solutions to fix the problem of bullying. Even now, new laws have been introduced so that the Fair Work Commission will be charged with solving complex bullying complaints from employees who remain at work but are the target of bullying behaviours. Legislating change hasn’t worked in the past, and I am fairly sure that in isolation, the latest legislative attempts at preventing and managing bullying will not work either.

The recent Australian government enquiry into workplace bullying estimated this problem costs the Australian economy between 6 billion and 36 billion dollars a year, and employers an average of $17,000 to $24,000 per case ii. Despite being outlawed for over 25 years, sexual harassment too remains a significant problem in our workplaces. In fact, nearly one in five complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) relate to sexual harassment iiv. While the financial cost of bullying and harassment is exorbitant, the human cost can also be devastating iv. People who are bullied, harassed and discriminated against, and stay silent become victims. However, those who complain, speak out, or raise their voices against bullying, sexist or discriminatory behaviours are labelled trouble makers for disturbing the status quo. In an increasingly complex society where global relationships help shape who we are as a society, it is increasingly important that leadership behaviours demonstrate the importance of respect, genuine enquiry and cooperation. Instead still too often our leaders model old fashion and outdated concepts of command and control; concepts of ‘my way or the high way’, that contribute to damaging bullying, sexist and discriminatory behaviours

Because of this, preventing bullying and harassment is an adaptive problem. It is a problem where technical solutions alone will not stop the behaviour. Hearts and minds need to be changed, and the values of respect and cooperative problem-solving need to become the overarching values practiced and embraced within organisations (and indeed, the wider Australian community). Identifying bullying and harassment as an adaptive problem does not mean that technical solutions are not part of the answer, and I, for one, would be hesitant to refute the importance of laws, regulations and a system of risk control measures to prevent and manage bullying and harassment at work. I am a strong advocate of a risk management approach to preventing bullying v and remain so. However, technical solutions alone, without changing the mindset of all the stakeholders involved, will do little to change the rates and impact of bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky vi, argue that “adaptive leadership is about change that enables the capacity to thrive “(p.14). For Australia to thrive in a global economy, for a culture of respect and innovation to prosper, many Australian organisations need to change… truly change. However, advocating for change can be a dangerous thing. An adaptive challenge that benefits a whole organisation (and society) will undoubtedly upset the egos of those who have benefited from the old system of doing things. People in positions of power, people with taken for granted privilege will need to examine their role in perpetuating bullying, sexism and workplace discrimination. Behaviours and careers that were once part of, and accepted as ‘normal’, within the old workplace culture will not now be tolerated. Furthermore,, individuals and organisations who do not adapt to this new way of doing things will soon realise that they are being left behind, and the cost of failing to change will be far greater than the costs of changing.

In contrast to current attempts at technical solutions to preventing bullying and harassment, casualties are likely to be people in powerful positions – whether that power is by virtue of gender, race, or positional power.

The casualties are the true targets of bullying or harassment, their families and fellow workers. However, in our current society perpetrators are all too often portrayed as causalities, and justify their behaviour as a response to a radical feminist; a difficult personality; an oversensitive employee; or lazy worker. Perpetrators move on with their lives, justifying their behaviour and ignore its consequence. In contrast, the effects of bullying and harassment on those targeted, has an ongoing impact and rarely gets told . The stories of targets are seldom heard unless they are ‘pretty’, have done something wrong (so they are portrayed a scammer , rather than a genuine casualty), or the behaviour they have been subjected to is so horrendous that it sells newspapers. The fact that many employers don’t want to take on someone who reports being a target of previous bullying (because they might just be a ‘difficult personality’, and hard to get on with ) is rarely addressed or challenged.

In challenging our toleration of bullying, and other disrespectful workplace behaviours there will be casualties. However, the organisations that thrive will be those that signal the intolerance of poor behaviours at all levels of the hierarchy, and reinforce respectful discourse, and a collaborative approach to leadership. Cultural change will be addressed in a transparent way that will clearly indicate to all employees, and stakeholders, (both internal and external) that the organisation is committed to change. Adaptive problems such as preventing bullying and harassment need clear leadership that addresses the actual problem, that is, – organisational culture. On an individual level taking the role of an adaptive leader in this area means that the status quo will be challenged. The gaps between the organisation’s stated values (their technical fix), and the reality of the situation will need to be identified, and challenged. There is risk involved, and leadership in this realm is not necessarily a safe undertaking.

While we continue to expect bullying and harassment to be fixed through a technical remedy only, we will be disappointed. Our dependency on a higher authority to change toxic workplace cultures, and the denial of our own power and resourcefulness allows bullying and harassment to prevail in many workplaces. Looking outwards for solutions also serves to negate our own role in contributing to the problem. To truly stop workplace bullying and harassment we need to adjust our unrealistic expectations that laws, policies, training and punishment alone will stop it. We need to learn to tackle the problem in a new way where we all contribute to a better way of working.

Aigner and Skelton vii argue that our rank , or the power that we have relative to one another can be utilised to make change. We are identified through our rank, whether that be through our position within the organisation, our social rank (due to our race, gender, sexuality, culture etc..), our psychological rank that includes our personality and level of awareness in the world, and our spiritual rank; our strength from being connected to a higher cause. This complex interplay highlights that leadership does not come from position alone, which according to Aigner and Skelton is temporary and situational. True leadership comes from how we acknowledge and utilise our rank, or power to facilitate change within our organisation and wider community. Leaders who understand and utilise all the different facets of their rank to prevent bullying, are better able to question underlying values and accepted standards of behaviour, and respond accordingly even when their own safety is challenged by those who might benefit from the status quo. Building a respectful workplace culture is an adaptive problem that mobilises one person at a time, one organisation at a time … until bullying, harassing and disrespectful behaviours are viewed as an antipathy to the Australian values held by all. The challenges we face in preventing and managing workplace bullying, discrimination and harassment can only be solved when in our hearts and minds we live shared values of respect and cooperative problem solving. Technical solutions alone will not change the overarching values practiced and embraced within organisations. Navigating the complex terrain of bullying prevention is truly an adaptive challenge, that requires courageous and creative leadership.

Questions for adaptive leaders

  • What would this organisation look like if we had a workplace culture that truly embraced the concept of ‘a fair go,’ and equality of opportunity, and viewed difference as a source of innovation and energy?
  • What part of this current culture do I own – what am I reinforcing by my own behaviours?
  • What would I need to give up / lose if the workplace culture changed?
  • How would I describe my rank (positional, psychological, social and spiritual) – what power does this give me? How can I own this?
  • What is my response when my authority is challenged, or people disagree with me?
  • What gaps are there between the organisation’s stated values and the behaviours I observe? How do I inadvertently reinforce these gaps?
  • How can I bring others with me to meet this challenge?
  • What is one thing I can do differently …
i Carlo Caponecchia and Anne Wyatt, Preventing Workplace Bullying: An evidence-based guide for managers and employees, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2011, p. 139.
ii Workplace Bullying: We just want it to stop. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2012, Canberra.
iiv Accessed 23/09/13
iv Jenkins, M. (2013) Preventing and managing workplace bullying and harassment: A risk management approach. Australian Academic press, Brisbane, Australia.
v Jenkins, M. (2013) Preventing and managing workplace bullying and harassment: A risk management approach. Australian Academic press, Brisbane, Australia.
vi Heifetz, R; Grashow, A and Linsky, M. (2009) The practice of Adaptive leadership: Tools and Tactics for Change; Harvard Business School Publishing, Massachusetts, USA.
vii Aigner, G and Skelton, L (2013) The Australian leadership Paradox: What it takes to lead in the Lucky Country. Allen & Unwin, Sydney, Australia.