When senior executives care about employees, line managers are better and there is less bullying
Recent research at Victoria University of Wellington (Victoria University) has found that when line managers perceive senior managers to be concerned about the psychosocial safety of employees, line managers lead better, and accordingly there is less bullying, and higher job satisfaction.
Workplace bullying involves repeated and frequent exposure, over time, to negative workplace behaviours such as unfair workload, insults, spreading gossip, and even violence or threats of abuse. Its effects are devastating, with a wide range of well-studied harms to both organisations and employees. Attempts to deal with it, however, are often partial and incomplete – often legally focussed on after-the-fact investigation, rather than prevention and remediation. However, recent research at Victoria University of Wellington (Victoria University) has found that when line managers perceive senior managers to be concerned about the psychosocial safety of employees, line managers lead better, and accordingly there is less bullying, and higher job satisfaction.
Psychosocial safety climate (PSC) is enhanced through senior management’s commitment to the protection of psychological health and safety - acting quickly to address and correct issues; prioritising it by ensuring people are not over-worked or stressed and have resources to do their jobs; and actively communicating about psychological health and safety issues. They also involve employees, unions, and health and safety representatives in solving workplace issues.
These steps actively address work environment issues that are precursors to bullying, and rightfully shift attention away from blaming it on errant individuals. Work environments shape bullying in three ways:
(a) providing an environment that makes bullying possible, for instance, through unclear, conflicting or overworked job roles;
(b) motivating or rewarding bullying, for instance, through criteria in pay and promotion decisions; and
(c) through triggers such as restructuring and change.
High PSC organisations actively address all of these issues.
The Victoria University research, across 47 New Zealand public service agencies, found that in organisations with higher PSC, managers engaged in more constructive behaviours such as planning, helping staff and solving problems, and were less passive and avoidant in the face of workplace problems and conflicts. Consequently, in turn, there was less bullying, and higher job satisfaction. Unfortunately, only a minority of participants thought that senior managers in their employing organisations cared about PSC, which may be why workplace bullying is a problem in New Zealand workplaces generally, and the public service more specifically.
The benefits of taking PSC seriously likely spill over to benefits beyond less bullying. Top managers prioritising PSC over productivity would indicate managers are trustworthy. Showing commitment to PSC would indicate that senior managers are reliable. Letting staff participate would indicate empathy and understanding of work problems, and so help employees support organisational goals.
Effective action, beyond formal policies and procedures would also help address the leadership gaps that are in the New Zealand public service, and elsewhere. Job descriptions for managers and executives should better emphasise prosocial behaviours, in addition to the core technical function. Currently these behaviours are not always rewarded. “Soft” skills are actually very hard, and they should be more highly rated as a requirement and vetted for in hiring and promotion decisions. Leadership comes from groups, not just individuals, and as per modern leadership development theories, development should focus on groups and cohorts of leaders rather than just star individuals. Selecting, training, holding managers accountable and aligning rewards with desired behaviours could all strengthen PSC perceptions.
This summary is based on Plimmer, G., Nguyen, D., Teo, S., & Tuckey, M. R. (2021). Workplace bullying as an organisational issue: Aligning climate and leadership. Work & Stress, 1-26.
Contact Geoff Plimmer for further information.