In an effort to pass the health care law, Donald Trump placed intense political pressure on members of the House, even telling one key lawmaker “I’m going to come after you,” according to reports. The president has also made personal attacks on members of the judiciary.
How do these strong-arm tactics – I would call it bullying and intimidation – affect the workings of Washington? After all, the president, as the leader of the executive branch of our government, is responsible for establishing the organizational culture and monitoring the behavior of his administration.
As a citizen, a taxpayer and a psychologist, I’m concerned that we have a chief executive exhibiting behavior that would be considered bullying in business. By setting the example that bullying is okay at the top, it could become acceptable practice in our government and by extension in our businesses. And research suggests that could not only be detrimental to the health of individuals being bullied, but also harm the country overall.
The toll of workplace bullying is hard to fully quantify, but we do know that it contributes to depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, substance misuse and somatic complaints such as headaches. And in addition to the personal toll, workplace bullying can have a toxic effect on work performance – decreased productivity, excessive absenteeism, higher worker’s compensation claims and early retirement payouts.
I’m part of a team of psychologists who teach a class in Yale University’s School of Management called Interpersonal Dynamics. There, future business leaders are challenged to be receptive to learning about their impact on others, taught to experience and appropriately express their emotions and use that information to engage in respectful interpersonal exchanges. These kinds of skills can create organizational climates that not only hold leaders and employees accountable for their behavior but also offer potential targets psychological safety and some control.
And having skills to defuse bullying behavior helps to keep at least some employees happy.
For example, in a 2015 internal study of Google employees, the most frequently identified attribute for a team’s success was psychological safety.
You know it’s bullying when it hurts your soul
Workplace bullying is more than the occasional snide remark; it involves repeated, regular, offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behavior and can include the abuse of power or unfair, penal job sanctions. Examples of workplace bullying include threats to one’s status, such as professional humiliation or belittlement, personal attacks like name-calling or intimidation, rumor spreading or work-related harassment like unrealistically high job demands or impossible deadlines.
Prevalence rates on workplace bullying vary widely depending on measurement methods and sampling techniques. A 2010 meta-analysis of 86 independent samples with a total number of over 130,000 participants provided an overall estimate of 14.6 percent of current workplace bullying.
This type of behavior is particularly prevalent in large hierarchical organizations with decentralized structures and segregated silos such as governments, large business corporations, the military and law enforcement agencies.
The leader sets the tone
In most cases, workplace bullying seems to filter from the top down. If a boss gives a green light to such behavior by personally demeaning and degrading employees, that sets a powerful tone to others that they can do likewise. This in turn increases the powerlessness.
Bosses and their organizations don’t always take workplace bullying seriously. Some say “lighten up,” “it’s just teasing,” or “that’s not what’s in his heart.” In such cases, the organization often develops a conspiracy of silence, and the workplace bullying remains hidden and likely continues.
Preliminary research suggests that zero-tolerance policies and formal reporting processes may do little to stop workplace bullying. A recent review on the effectiveness of training programs focused on educating employees and on developing skills to handle bullying. It revealed that while we can positively impact people’s knowledge and attitudes about bullying, stopping the actual behavior isn’t easy and requires a lot of effort.
Several countries – France, Canada, Sweden, United Kingdom, Australia and Germany – have been at the forefront of tackling workplace bullying. Based on experience from these countries, best practices suggest a comprehensive concerted remedy to this problem is needed. At the core of the solution is the cultivation of an organizational culture that does not tolerate bullying and has transparent, safe procedures for the disclosure of such behavior as well as the sanctioning of its perpetrators.
A learning opportunity?
Maybe Trump’s presidency is an opportunity for the American people to recognize bullying and understand its potentially corrosive effects on our public institutions and our culture. This same cause-and-effect relationship also holds for our workplaces and, just like standing up in the public sphere, it is up to us to recognize and call out bullies in our companies.
Similar to what American companies have done in the field of workplace sexual harassment, we can develop and enforce ways to prevent bullying in the workplace and set the right example for our new president and his government.