Preventing Toxic Work Environments Through Ethical Leadership

Recently, the issues of toxic workplaces and toxic leaders has gained widespread attention. How to handle or stay away from toxic leaders and how to improve toxic work environments are topics that are frequently discussed. Less focus, however, has been placed on the kind of leaders we require and want — morally upright leaders.

In other words, the focus has been more on how to avoid or cope with toxic work environments, rather than on proactive and positive behaviors that would create healthy work environments.

Dr. Gabi Eissa, a management professor at SDSU, and Dr. Rebecca Wyland, a management professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, both recently published research that demonstrates how “ethical leadership is demonstrated through two-way communication, positive reinforcement, and emotional support help to reduce stress in the workplace.”

Their study, which was published in Applied Psychology: An International Review, found that when there are disputes between the home and work environments, it stresses out employees, who then use words and actions that are aimed to harm their coworkers’ reputations.

According to Eissa, this might result in “hindrance stress,” which is when work obligations are seen as barriers to personal progress or aspirations. This can happen “when family and life difficulties coincide with work situations. Employees that have excessive stress frequently lose the capacity to manage their emotions and react by acting aggressively and negatively toward their peers.”

Although it would be simple for managers to dismiss the issue or confront and discipline workers for unproductive conduct, their research demonstrates that moral leadership may stop these types of eruptions from ever even occurring.

“We define ‘ethical leadership’ as supervisors that exhibit proper workplace behaviour via their acts and those who involve employees by discussing their concerns and emotions related to the workplace,” stated Eissa. “Ethical leaders attempt to offer resources to aid employees who may find themselves hitting a hard patch,” according to the study. “Ethical leaders want to help people respond positively to negative events.”

Eissa and Wyland conducted a poll of 156 focal employees — those who put in at least 20 hours per week — and one of their co-workers to find out how work-family conflict affects hindrance stress. They asked the target employees to rate the management team’s ethical leadership abilities, work/family conflict stress, and impediment stress. The coworkers were then subjected to a series of inquiries meant to gauge social undermining behaviours.

When the data were combined, the findings revealed that hindrance stress, a particular kind of stress, was a crucial element connecting work-family conflict to social undermining, according to Eissa. Additionally, “we discovered that ethical leadership reduced social undermining among employees as well as the manner and timing of how and when work-family conflict resulted in social undermining.”

“Our findings might have an impact on organizational policies, plans, and training programmes that attempt to lessen stress and work-family conflict. Naturally, this results in less social undermining and a happier, more productive workplace “Eissa added. “Our research may help organizations recognize the value of having moral leaders, but for this to become a reality, top leadership commitment is required.”

I was inspired to write two books about the significance of having honourable leaders of excellent character by others’ research as well as my own. The first book, Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Moral and Ethical Leaders, provides examples and visuals to illustrate toxic leaders and goes into detail about unethical firms that have lost their good reputations. It provides advice, resources, and methods for developing ethical leaders. It is a comprehensive work on moral and ethical leadership.

My most recent book, Virtuous Leadership: The Character Secrets of Great Leaders, makes the case that one way to address the current leadership issues is to resume choosing and elevating people with moral character. It serves as a guide to understanding the foundational character, beliefs, and behaviours that all leaders require.



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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others