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Preventing toxic work environments through ethical leadership

Recently published research has shown that managers who demonstrate ethical leadership through two-way communication, positive reinforcement and emotional support not only encourage this type of behavior in their employees, but also help alleviate stress in the work environment.

The research, published in Applied Psychology: An International Review, found that conflicts between the home and work environment cause stress for employees, who, in turn, engage in words and behavior meant to damage the reputation of co-workers.

What the researchers say

“When family and life issues conflict with work situations, this can cause ‘hindrance stress’, which means job demands are viewed as obstacles to personal growth or goals,” said the lead researcher. “Hindrance stress often depletes the employee’s ability to exercise self-control, and they lash out with aggressive and undermining behavior toward their peers.”

While it would be easy for supervisors to ignore the situation or to confront and punish employees for counterproductive behavior, their research showed that ethical leadership may prevent these types of outbursts from ever even happening.

“We define ‘ethical leadership’ as supervisors who demonstrate appropriate work conduct through their personal actions and those who engage employees by discussing their work-related worries and emotions,” she said. “Ethical leaders want to help employees respond positively to negative situations and they try to offer resources to help employees who may find themselves hitting a rough patch.”

The researchers surveyed 156 employees who worked at least 20 hours a week (focal employees) and one of their co-workers to determine how work-family conflict affected hindrance stress. They asked focal employees to measure work/family conflict stress, hindrance stress and the ethical leadership qualities of their management team. They then asked the co-workers a series of questions designed to measure social undermining activities.

Once the data was merged, the results showed that hindrance stress was a key factor that linked work-family conflict to social undermining,” they reported. “We also found less social undermining among employees in presence of ethical leadership.”

Our conclusions may have implications for organizational policies, programs and training initiatives that are aimed at reducing work-family conflict and hindrance stress. This, of course, leads to less social undermining and a more positive, productive workplace,” said the lead author. Our findings may help organizations to understand the importance of having ethical leaders, but it takes commitment from their top leadership to make this a reality.”

Amen to that last sentence.

By ethical leadership, the researchers seem to mean what Alicia and I, and other researchers, term “transformational leadership”. This incorporates such things as eschewing the “do as I say” approach to management and adopting a more cooperative person-centered approach that stresses relationship support, praise and acknowledgement, and a genuine interest in people and what matters to them. Organizations that do so are far more successful – and profitable.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain