Strategic bullying as a supplementary, balanced perspective on destructive leadership

The concept of destructive leadership has generated considerable interest and research by a number of scholars under rubrics
such as “abusive supervision” and “incivility,” and certainly represents an appropriate forum for this special issue. In the present
article, we examine the leader as a bully, and explore potential consequences of strategic leader bullying behavior through the
development of a conceptual model. Building upon recent work by Salin [Salin, D. (2003). Bullying and organizational politics in
competitive and rapidly changing work environments. International Journal of Management and Decision Making, 4, 35–46],
leader bullying behavior is construed as a form of organizational politics. We explore the implications of bullying as an influence
behavior that is employed strategically to convey particular images and exercise influence in specific situations, potentially
producing positive outcomes. Finally, the implications of this conceptualization and directions for future research in this relatively
new area of scientific inquiry are discussed.

  1. Introduction
    The past couple of decades in the organizational sciences have witnessed a strong interest in understanding the “dark
    side of organizational behavior” (e.g., Griffin & O’Leary-Kelly, 2004). That is, we have seen scholars preoccupied with
    such topics as organizational politics, injustice, workplace violence and aggression, and unethical behavior, and have
    been interested in understanding the behavior of such organizational creatures as the “destructive achiever” (Kelly,
    1988), the “gamesman” (Maccoby, 1978), and the “articulate player” (Kanter & Mirvis, 1989). The area of leadership
    has shared in this active interest by contributing such topics as “abusive supervision” (e.g., Tepper, 2000), “incivility”
    (e.g., Pearson, Andersson, & Porath, 2000; Pearson & Porath, 2004), and the concept of “bullying” (e.g., Lewis, 1999).

Although research throughout the world to date has characterized bullying in a negative manner (Adams, 1992), we
propose a conceptualization that considers the potential negative and positive consequences of strategic leader bullying
behavior. Thus, we intend to explore how strategic bullying can shed meaningful light on, and broaden the construct of,
“destructive leadership.” More specifically, although we agree that bullying may have some dispositional and
situational antecedents, we propose that bullying can be a strategic attempt to influence others at work in ways that not
only increase the bully’s power and reputation, but may increase the job performance of not only the targets, but of
those around them.

  1. Research on bullying in organizations
    In Europe and Australia, bullying (or “mobbing” as it is sometimes labeled) has been well developed as a stream of
    research over the past 15 years (for a comprehensive review see Einarsen, 2000; Salin, 2003). The intense interest in
    bullying most likely started in the early 1990’s when the idea of “bullying in the work place” hit the mainstream media
    in the United Kingdom, being regarded as an epidemic (Lewis, 1999). Even today, bullying is still a topic of much
    discussion and debate, not only being the theme of several special issues of prominent journals (e.g., International
    Journal of Manpower), but also being the focus of a semi-annual international conference.
    As this stream of research has developed and matured, several beliefs (i.e., tested and otherwise) have become
    accepted as reality. Current thought in the field suggests that bullying is normally a result of specific organizational
    conditions, victims are individuals who hold similar characteristics that make them targets (Matthiesem & Einarsen,
    2001), and bullies have particular personality traits (Adams, 1992). Bullying research also suggests that bullying results
    in a number of negative organizational and personal outcomes (Salin, 2001).
    Although some researchers have argued that there are no specific environmental conditions that promote bullying,
    most agree that organizational conditions do play a role in fostering bullying. These conditions include low control,
    role conflict, dissatisfaction with management, high cooperation requirements (Matthiesem & Einarsen, 2001), power
    distance, the size of the organization (Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996), and the level of bureaucracy (Salin, 2003).
    Essentially, research has suggested that large organizations, employing individuals with low levels of both autonomy
    and independence, tend to promote bullying. Additionally, there is support for the idea that bullying occurs when there
    is extensive change in the organization (e.g., restructuring or downsizing) (McCarthy, Sheehan, & Kearns, 1995).
    Although Zapf & Gross (2001) and Leymann (1996) suggested that there is little that victims can do to solve the
    problem of bullying, much research has been done regarding the characteristics of the “victims” of bullies. Victims
    have been characterized as conscientious, literal minded, introverted, straight forward, neurotic, often reflecting a poor
    self-image, and occasionally are overachievers (Matthiesem & Einarsen, 2001). On the other hand, Leymann (1996)
    suggested that there is no difference between victims and non-victims.
    Although some researchers have suggested that most bullying goes on between individuals of similar power, such as
    co-workers (Hogh & Dofradottir, 2001; Leymann, 1996; Vartia, 1993), most scholars agree that there is a power
    distance between bullies and their victims. Therefore, we would expect most bullies to be in a position of authority.
    Beyond the aspect of power distance in defining a bully, the majority of research regarding the causes of bullying
    focuses on the environment of the victim.
    When the literature does explore the aspect of what makes a bully, much is borrowed from psychology. These
    theories tend to suggest that bullies are motivated by personality characteristics that have carried through from
    childhood, such as bullies being sadistic, narcissistic, envious of others (Adams, 1992), conscientious, literal minded,
    and unsophisticated (Brodsky, 1976). These characteristics imply that the act of bullying has not been viewed as a
    conscious decision, but rather as a result of uncontrollable personality defects.
    An exhaustive review of the bullying research suggests that bullying has harmful outcomes in all situations.
    Bullying is reported to negatively affect job satisfaction, health of the victims (Einarsen & Raknes, 1997), intent to
    turnover, and absenteeism (Rayner, 1997). Due to its reported negative consequences, an abundance of literature (i.e.,
    both academic and mainstream) has been published on attempts at resolving bullying in the workplace. Although the
    United States has produced key contributions regarding bullying as an area of scientific inquiry, we still lag behind
    European organizational scientists with regard to contributions to the field. Coming into the stream of research after its
    initial development has given these authors the unique perspective of looking at bullying with a fresh eye.
    The proposed conceptualization introduces the notion of strategic bullying as one of many mechanisms of influence
    demonstrated by leaders in order to achieve their personal and organizational objectives. In so doing, we hope to

develop a more expansive and informed understanding of what could appear to be (i.e., but, in fact, may not always be)
destructive leadership in organizations today.

  1. Toward a conceptualization of leader bullying behavior
    In an effort to more specifically depict the antecedents and consequences of leader bullying behavior both as
    assertive, tactical and assertive, strategic mechanisms of influence, we propose a conceptual model of such linkages
    that is presented in Fig. 1. This model builds upon current research in that it includes many of the antecedents and
    consequences set forth by such scholars as Einarsen & Raknes (1997), Leymann (1996), and Rayner (1997). In so
    doing, we acknowledge that many aspects of bullying are, in fact, negative as we would predict with assertive, tactical
    bullying. Nevertheless, we purpose that under certain circumstances, bullying may be an effective management tool as
    with its use as an assertive, strategic form of influence.
    The model reflects these views in that it presents leader bullying behavior as being produced by independent and
    interactive combinations of personal and contextual characteristics, and then producing positive and negative
    consequences for followers and self. In the next sections, we characterize the nature and definition of bullying, position
    it as a strategic form of organizational politics, and examine each of the linkages in the proposed conceptualization.
    3.1. Definition of bullying
    When consulting the dictionary definition of the term “bully,” we find two quite different meanings of this term
    presented. First is “a person who hurts, frightens, threatens, or tyrannizes over those who are smaller or weaker; a hired
    cut-throat or thug.” However, a follow-up definition presented says “gallant, dashing: as my bully boy; and colloq: fine,
    very good, well done.” These quite different meanings associated with “bully” might reflect the contradictory feelings
    we hold toward bullies.
    From the perspective presented by the current body of bullying research today, we see such behavior as negative and
    dysfunctional. From a different perspective, we sometimes develop admiration for the leader who is powerful,
    dominant, and in control, which might be one type of message conveyed from bullying. Therefore, we suggest that
    leader bullying represents strategically selected tactics of influence by leaders designed to convey a particular
    image and place targets in a submissive, powerless position whereby they are more easily influenced and controlled, in
    order to achieve personal and/or organizational objectives.
    In this sense, bullying behavior becomes simply one of many potential “masks” that astute, calculative leaders can
    don in order to effectively orchestrate specific outcomes. The specific nature of the bullying behavior demonstrated in
    particular situations may involve emotional outbursts directed toward employees, which might be construed as
    reflective of reflexive, uncontrolled, and unregulated behavior by the leader. Quite to the contrary, such outbursts make
    up part of the strategic influence effort, and they are controlled efforts to integrate emotion demonstration and
    regulation with other behaviors in a performance designed to bring about certain desired outcomes. Indeed, the
    uncontrolled emotion-laden outbursts directed toward employees at work, frequently associated with bullies, represent
    luxuries the astute and calculative leader cannot afford.

Therefore, we note distinctions between leader bullying and the other noted constructs reflective of destructive
leadership. Tepper (2000) conceived of abusive supervision as individuals engaging in sustained displays of hostile
behavior, and workplace incivility is viewed as involving rude or discourteous behavior (Pearson & Porath, 2004).
Even the construct of “petty tyranny” identifies exclusively negative hostile behavior to characterize the tyrant
(Ashforth, 1994).
3.2. Bullying as a form of organizational politics
Our definition of leader bullying certainly allows for the demonstration of influence behavior that is aggressive,
angry, and reflective of other negative and/or emotionally-laden behaviors. However, it does not confine itself
exclusively to such behavior. Leader bullying also can include more subtle forms of influence, such as implicit threats,
which appear less overtly hostile and/or emotional in nature. The important point regarding leader bullying is that
regardless of the particular forms the bullying behavior takes, the intention and desired consequences are the same; that
is, that the leader is successful in influencing the target individual(s) to act in some preconceived direction or manner,
and at the same time, subordinate the focal individual(s) to a position of weakness or helplessness, which reinforces and
strengthens the leader’s own power, and increases the probability of goal accomplishment.
Furthermore, strategic bullying by leaders need not necessarily be directed to proceed intentionally against
organizational goals. However, the consequences of the bullying behavior could reflect such results in particular
situations. Similarly, the organizational politics literature, frequently cast in a pejorative sense, has begun to recognize
that politics are not necessarily inherently bad, and those who engage in influence do not always do so exclusively in a
self-interested manner, and in direct opposition to organizational objectives (Ferris, Adams, Kolodinsky, Hochwarter,
& Ammeter, 2002).
Recent theoretical work has characterized leadership in a political perspective, selecting situationally-appropriate
tactics of influence to convey image and exercise influence, and to execute such tactics in successful ways (e.g.,
Ammeter, Douglas, Gardner, Hochwarter, & Ferris, 2002; Ferris, Treadway, et al., 2005). Furthermore, related work
has suggested that the use of emotion in organizations can be demonstrated in a calculative and strategic way as a type
of political behavior designed to bring about particular outcomes (Liu et al., 2006). As such, we perceive leader
bullying behavior as a form of organizational politics, a notion that has received support recently from Salin (2003).

  1. Antecedents of leader bullying behavior
    4.1. Contextual factors
    Many contextual factors have been established as being ideal for bullies, such as organizations that foster low
    control, high cooperation (Matthiesem & Einarsen, 2001), and large bureaucracies (Salin, 2003). Certain environments
    have been shown to be more receptive to bullying tactics than others. For instance, departments in which the managers
    are rule-minded (i.e., give a higher priority to orderliness and procedures than performance) have been found to foster
    bullying (Hofstede, 1978). Although many studies have been conducted on the contextual factors that encourage
    bullying (see Matthiesem & Einarsen, 2001), we incorporate the political perspective of bullying by focusing on
    perceptions of organizational politics as a contextual factor that might encourage bullying.
    4.1.1. Perceptions of organizational politics (POPS)
    Although POPS and bullying rarely have been examined together, the antecedents of these organizational
    phenomena have several striking similarities. POPS, which refers to the subjective evaluation of the extent to which
    environmental behaviors are seen as self-serving by individuals in the workplace, is created by environments in which
    individuals have low control and that are ambiguous in nature (Ferris et al., 2002). Low control also is a contextual
    antecedent of bullying (Matthiesem & Einarsen, 2001). Furthermore, centralization, which refers to the allocation of
    power in organizations, also is thought to foster POPS (Ferris et al., 2002). Centralization is related closely to the
    antecedent of bullying, power distance (Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996).
    If bullying is seen as an influence tactic, then there is even more support that POPS would foster an environment in
    which bullying could be used. It has been argued that POPS leads to a number of outcomes. If individuals remain in an
    environment that they perceive as political, they may choose to participate in political behavior (Ferris et al., 2002),

such as using bullying. In other words, POPS creates an environment of uncertainty where individuals feel they do not
have control.
In order to counter this, these individuals might choose to participate in such influencing or political behavior as
bullying in an attempt to regain some control over their environment. In preliminary support for this notion,
Hochwarter, Dever, &Watson (submitted for publication) found that individuals in an environment that they perceived
as political were more satisfied and committed when they were participating in political behavior. This seems to suggest
that engaging in political behavior is one reaction to POPS. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that bullying
could be one reaction to POPS as well.
Although subordinates may accept a bully as a boss, the organization may go so far as to provide a Machiavellian
“get the job done at all costs” value system that would suggest a good person–environment fit for a bully (Chatman,
1989). This “good fit” arrangement between an organization who accepts bullying, employees who are victims by
nature, and an individual who craves the power and control that bullying offers would suggest a destructive outcome.
As long as the bully kept producing, there would be no incentive for the organization to change its policies. In other
words, only the underlying economics make bullying a dysfunctional behavior (Mariano, 1995).
4.1.2. Victims
The suggestion that victims often may contribute to the creation of environments conducive to bullying is not new
(Ramsey, 2002). Because the victims of bullies may possess similar characteristics, in common, that make them targets
(Felson & Steadman, 1983; Olweus, 1978), it can be assumed that they will attract others like themselves, creating a
form of a social support network (Ellison, 1993). Meanwhile, individuals who cannot cope with a bullying atmosphere
will tend to select themselves out of such surroundings (Schneider, 1983). As the organization becomes more
homogenized with victims, the environment may become conducive for bullying.
4.2. Leader personal characteristics
4.2.1. Review of personal characteristics
Mariano (1995) quoted Styles in pointing out that there are two types of bullies: successful ones and unsuccessful
ones. The unsuccessful ones do not last long in organizations, being cast out for the problems they cause.
Alternatively, the successful ones usually are very bright, competent workers, who often are noteworthy in their
performance and get promoted because of their technical expertise. Over time, they advance to supervisory and
leadership positions.
In order to understand when bullying will be successful versus unsuccessful, it is necessary to examine leader
characteristics. The field of study regarding bullying is so nascent that the personal characteristics possessed by bullies
still are open to considerable debate. Elliott (1997) stated that the majority of bullies (80%) have high self-esteem, are
emotionally strong as well as confident, and see little wrong with their aggressive behaviors. Alternatively, Ramsey
(2002), as well as others, suggested that bullies act as they do in an attempt to overcome low self-esteem.
Some scholars have suggested that bullies don’t perceive themselves or their situation accurately (Adams & Bray,
1992; Mariano, 1995), whereas others proposed that bullies act in such ways because it accomplishes their goals
(Ramsey, 2002). Some have suggested that bullies attack others in an attempt to cover for insecurities and deficiencies
thus giving them a need to feel superior. Whereas others have argued that bullies act as they do because they feel they
are legitimately right, and others should comply (Adams & Bray, 1992).
Some studies have indicated that bullies are frequently raised in less than ideal environments. Besag (1995) reported
that bullies often are reared in socioeconomic disadvantage, being forced to deal with households fraught with martial
discord. Additionally, their formal education, although sometimes lacking, often encourages aggression as part of life
(Besag, 1995). This perspective, carried over from childhood, may well give adult bullies the negative life themes that
allow them to see themselves and their role as exerting power over others. As an adult, bullies often will seek out
surroundings that are conducive to the bullying behavior that they were taught as a youth. At the same time, researchers
readily admit that many bullies are highly educated, and near the top of their game (Xavier, 2005).
In order to overcome the apparent inconsistencies in leadership characteristics, and to re-introduce our concept of
leader bullying as a political influence tactic, it is necessary to examine another leader personal characteristic we
believe is critical to our conceptualization of leader bullying behavior. As noted above, scholars have examined a
number of personal characteristics thought to be associated with bullying. However, in keeping with the idea that

bullying is a mechanism of influence, an examination of political skill is necessary, which distinguishes successful
from unsuccessful influencers.
4.2.2. Leader political skill
Although there are numerous social effectiveness measures, political skill seems most appropriate in this situation
because of its focus on savvy and influence in work organizations (Ferris, Davidson, & Perrewé, 2005; Ferris,
Treadway, et al., 2005). Therefore, we believe that leaders’ political skill will affect their bullying behavior in the
workplace. Political skill is the ability of individuals to understand the work situation and others’ behaviors, and to use
this understanding to influence others to achieve personal goals and/or organizational goals (Ferris, Treadway, et al.,
2005). Politically skilled individuals are able to read both situations and individuals, and adjust their behavior to the
demands of situations and of particular individuals. Additionally, politically skilled individuals’ interpersonal style is
authentic, genuine, and sincere.
Recently, the concept of political skill has been examined in the context of leadership, and the findings have
supported the notion that leaders high in political skill tend to be more effective (e.g., Ahearn, Ferris, Hochwarter,
Douglas, & Ammeter, 2004). Furthermore, when using high levels of impression management, politically skilled
individuals are more effective than those with low political skill (Harris, Kacmar, Zivnuska, & Shaw, 2007; Treadway,
Ferris, Duke, Adams, & Thatcher, in press). As noted earlier, leader bullying can be either assertive, tactical, or
assertive, strategic in nature.
Politically-skilled leaders understand both their work group situations and their subordinates. This understanding
allows such leaders to effectively use bullying as an assertive, strategic mechanism of influence designed to achieve
their goals and enhance their reputation. These leaders will chose to demonstrate this form of influence in situations
where it is deemed most appropriate, thereby minimizing negative consequences, and possibly even creating positive
As the previous discussion of victims indicated, according to situational theories of leadership, there are those
subordinates who are of low maturity (Hersey, Blanchard, & Natemeyer, 1979). These subordinates might actually
need to be bullied just to perform their job adequately. Leaders high in political skill would recognize this need because
they are attuned to their subordinates and context. Furthermore, there might be situations in which bullying is necessary
to get the job done (e.g., when there is the need to meet a tight deadline).
On the other hand, leaders low in political skill might engage in the more assertive, tactical form of bullying. These
leaders tend not to be as socially astute regarding the situation or their subordinates, and thus they might tend to engage
in what we think of as classical bullying behavior. The consequences of this type of bullying will be negative. In the
next section, we delineate more specifically the two types of leader bullying behavior, and then examine their proposed
4.3. Leader bullying behavior
According to Tedeschi & Melburg’s (1984) conceptualization of influence in organizations, influence behaviors
may be either defensive or assertive. Defensive behaviors are reactive and occur when a person is faced with a problem.
On the other hand, assertive behaviors are initiated by the person in order to establish a certain identity, and thus, are not
a reaction to situational demands.
Influence attempts also can be classified as tactical or strategic. Tactical attempts at influence generally are executed
with clear, short-term goals in mind. Strategic influencing behaviors, however, are intended to build reputational
characteristics and are long-term in nature (Tedeschi & Melburg, 1984). We characterize leader bullying as a
mechanism of influence in two ways: 1) assertive and tactical or 2) assertive and strategic. Interestingly, Tedeschi and
Melberg characterized intimidation as one of the assertive and tactical influence tactics, which include behaviors
intended to convey threats in order to create an identity of being potent. This influence tactic is similar to the first
dictionary definition of bullying that was introduced earlier; that is, characterizing a bully as someone who threatens
and tyrannizes over others.
Bullying as an assertive and tactical influence tactic should have negative outcomes. However, the possibility exists
for assertive and strategic bullying to lead to positive outcomes, which might be more reflective of the second definition
noted above, which focused on terms like “gallant, fine, very good,” and the critically important (i.e., for purposes the
present article) term regarding execution of “well done.” In order to further explore both the assertive and tactical

bullying and the assertive and strategic bullying, it is necessary to develop a more detailed conceptualization of leader
bullying behavior.
4.4. Consequences of leader bullying behavior: effects on self
4.4.1. Reputation and power enhancement
Pfeffer (1981) stated that, in most organizations, there is a balance of power. Although a supervisor may have such
power as firing, hiring, and giving raises to employees, there is usually a balance to the power in that employees often
possess task-specific skills that are required for the success of the supervisor and organization. Employees normally do
not consider this power balance in a literal sense; they simply follow competent instruction from a supervisor related to
their tasks. In the case of bullies, the leader, who often has risen to a position of power by possessing such task-specific
skills (Mariano, 1995), does not recognize the power of the subordinates. This inability to recognize the power of
subordinates releases leader bullies from normal self-imposed constraints, and allows them to pursue power and
reputation via their legitimate position in the organization.
Reputation is a social phenomenon arising from processes within a community of individuals, linking people to
specific social identities, and individuals’ attributes and status are acknowledged through these links (e.g., Elmer, 1984;
Ferris, Blass, Douglas, Kolodinsky, & Treadway, 2003). Bullies attempt to enact a reputation to make their intentions
known (Elmer, 1984). Ferris & Judge (1991) also suggested that reputation is an intentional effort at signaling, and
Bailey (1971) argued that reputation exists within communities of acquaintances, and that gossip is the mode by which
reputation travels (Elmer, 1984).
Pfeffer (1992) linked personal reputation to power, suggesting that individuals who have a reputation for being
powerful often become more powerful as their reputation spreads. He reasoned that individuals reputed to be powerful
will meet less resistance when trying to accomplish tasks, and because these results are observable, audiences will
observe the ease with which such individuals are able to get things done and attribute more power to them. Hence, the
perception of individuals possessing power becomes reality. Matthews (1988) echoed this same point in his analysis of
power, politics, and reputation in American government, using former President Lyndon B. Johnson as a prime
example, and one of the foremost experts at developing and leveraging image management, power, and reputation.
4.5. Consequences of leader bullying behavior: effects on followers
4.5.1. Job performance
It is difficult to envision how leader bullying behavior could have long-term positive effects on employee job
performance. Indeed, over time, it appears that the negative environment created by bullying would deteriorate
motivation and morale, and become highly disruptive to the focus and quality of production and/or service. However, it
is conceivable that the immediate effects of the threatening and intimidating behavior associated with bullying could
produce short-lived positive effects upon job performance levels as a function of employee compliance (Zapf & Gross,
Furthermore, if leaders are faced with employees who show noncompliance to traditional methods, they may be
forced to take a more assertive approach. As noted earlier, situational leadership suggests the use of coercive power as a
way of dealing with employees who lack maturity. Coercive power is based on fear (Hersey et al., 1979), and not only
will it have an effect on the target, but also it will elicit a reaction from other workers who observe the bullying.
Though this self-selection has been suggested as a long-term effect, the short-term effects of bullying have been
shown to be potentially quite different. Zapf & Gross (2001) found that more than half of the victims they surveyed had
an initial reaction of compliance when bullied. Furthermore, because bullying is defined as subjective (i.e., in that
bullying is defined by the victim) (Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996), and virtually all measures of bullying are self-report via
the victim, perhaps some forms of “bullying” are no more then what Zapf & Warth (1997) referred to as “personnel
management by other means.” Krakel (1997) suggested that bullying can be a strategy for eliminating too high or too
low achieving colleagues or subordinates. These theories reflect a cognitive evaluative approach to bullying that also
could be reflected when viewing employees from a situational leadership perspective (Hersey & Blanchard, 1977).
Situational leadership suggests that there are several different types of employees as defined by their level of
maturity. There are employees who are of low maturity who are “unable and unwilling to take responsibility” (Hersey
et al., 1979, p. 422), and “the leader often needs to engage in coercive power” (Hersey et al., 1979, p. 423). A manager

may recognize this, and may act in a bullying manner as a reaction to such employees. Therefore, in cases such as these,
assertive, strategic bullying might demonstrate positive effects on job performance. The low maturity subordinates
simply may not respond to other leadership styles and/or methods.
Furthermore, whereas research has shown that a victim normally will first comply with a bully, then, over time,
leave the organization, the audience may exhibit a different reaction. As an audience observes an individual being
bullied, they will make attributions in an attempt to understand why the bullying is occurring (Green & Mitchell, 1979).
Although it is possible that the audience may blame the bully, it is also possible that they may perceive and interpret that
an action on the part of the victim may have actually encouraged the bullying. So, they may compare their own actions
to those of the victims, and may be motivated to alter those actions in the future in order to avoid the bullying (Bandura,
1977). Thus, the bully not only has dealt with the target, but also has increased his/her control over the audience in a
way that increases productivity. This indicates that, under certain circumstances, assertive, strategic bullying may lead
to increased performance.
Overall, we would predict that, eventually, the effects of bullying on the target would be negative. However,
immediately, unit performance as a whole may increase, assuming that the leader bully is, in fact, a highly politically
skilled individual who employs bullying as one of several situationally-relevant mechanisms of influence.
With regard to the potential positive effects of strategic bullying behavior on unit or team performance, consider the
case of legendary college basketball coach, Bobby Knight. Two things come to mind when Knight’s name comes up:
one deals with his behavior, and the other deals with his team performance record. Knight is an aggressive, outspoken,
intense individual who on numerous occasions has demonstrated abusive and bullying behavior (i.e., he has even been
referred to as a “bully” by the media over the years).
At the same time, his basketball teams were consistently ranked among the best in the nation for the past three
decades or more, and he is one of the winningest basketball coaches in NCAA history. One may not like Bobby Knight
as a person, but he is a great coach, and it is because of his basketball knowledge combined with his ability to read his
players and the context in which he deals with them, and to differentially adjust his behavior and style in order to bring
out the best team performance. This sometimes has involved the use of strategic bullying behavior.
4.5.2. Job stress
The assertive, tactical form of bullying can be conceptualized as a threatening form of organizational politics.
Therefore, it takes on the role of politics as a workplace stressor with associated strain reactions of job anxiety and job
dissatisfaction, and also job performance (e.g., Ferris et al., 2002, 1996). Stress is a problem in many organizations,
costing organizations, worldwide, billions of dollars in disability claims, lost productivity, absenteeism, and turnover
(Xie & Schaubroeck, 2001). More specifically, “work place trauma,” (i.e., under which the assertive, tactical form of
bullying would be placed), is responsible for five to six billion dollars in decreased productivity alone. Billions more
are lost in sexual harassment, defamation suites, out placement costs, workers compensation, and health care costs
(Wilson, 1991), with which assertive, tactical bullying often is associated.
Assertive, tactical bullying can reduce the degree of control individuals perceive they have over their environment.
If individuals are afraid to perform (or not perform) some action due to fear of reprisals from a bully, this will affect not
only the individuals’ attitude, but their job performance as well (Adams & Bray, 1992). This loss of control is one of the
two basic causes of stress in Karasek’s (1979) widely accepted occupational stress model. Furthermore, although
quitting one’s job will alleviate the stress associated with being bullied, it is not possible for some people to leave, due
to labor market, salary need, or skill demand issues.
This constant state of “emergency” that assertive, tactical bullies foment (i.e., the fear of doing something that will
incur the wrath of the bully) causes not only rage directed against the bully, but also a form of “self-rage” on the
victim’s part for tolerating such behavior (Mariano, 1995). Such circumstances may result in individuals feeling as
though they are ineffective and unworthy of decent treatment at work; a form of self-loathing. This would probably add
significantly to the stress fomented by a bully.
However, when we examine leaders that use assertive, strategic bullying, the same positive relationship with stress
might not exist. Because assertive, strategic bullying is used to present a desired identity in the long term, it would be
expected that leaders use this form of bullying carefully and with much foresight (Tedeschi & Melburg, 1984). For
instance, leaders with high political skill should be able to grasp when this form of bullying would be most appropriate
to achieve their goals and the organizational goals. Consequently, assertive, strategic bullying would be used almost
exclusively with subordinates who require this type of influence in order for them to perform their jobs. Because this

form of bullying probably would be only used in certain situations, it would be unlikely that assertive, strategic
bullying would represent a long-term stressor for subordinates.
4.5.3. Job attitudes
Workers who experience assertive, tactical bullying are more likely to quit than those who are not bullied, but if they
remain at their job, their attitudes toward their jobs will inevitably diminish. Even if the workers show commitment to
the company, the way in which the assertive, tactical bullying leader treats these employees will encourage neither
respect, trust, nor obligation. Graen & Wakabayashi (1992) considered these to be the three dimensions of leader–
member exchange (LMX). So, as a form of organizational politics, assertive, tactical bullying by leaders can be
expected to exert similar influences on employee job attitudes as have been associated with politics, in general. That is,
we suggest that assertive, tactical leader bullying would be associated with significantly lower levels of employee trust,
commitment, and satisfaction, and significantly higher levels of employee cynicism (Ferris et al., 2002).
However, assertive, strategic bullying is used in a manner that is appropriate for both the subordinates at which it is
directed, and the situation in which the leaders find themselves. Because of this, we would expect that leaders who use
assertive, strategic bullying might be able to reinforce their subordinates’ confidence in their leadership abilities by
increasing the performance of certain individuals in the work group. Indeed, the situational diagnosis and selection of
contextually-appropriate behavior by leaders, designed to elicit desired behavior in each employee, is not really
different from the nature of LMX theory. LMX was developed based on the assumption of such differential leadership
style (e.g., Gerstner & Day, 1997; Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995).
Furthermore, if leaders have high political skill, we would expect them to be able to execute bullying behavior as a
mechanism of influence very effectively, and with minimal negative effects. Because individuals with high political
skill understand the nature of the situation and their subordinates, they are able to appropriately select and execute
influence attempts in a more effective manner, allowing them to use assertive, strategic bullying positively (Brouer,
2005). In support of this notion, it has been found that highly politically skilled individuals who use intimidation are
seen as more effective performers (Harris et al., 2007). Indeed, political skill allows individuals to formulate and
execute influence attempts effectively, thus leading to goal attainment (Ferris, Davidson, et al., 2005; Ferris, Treadway,
et al., 2005).

  1. Discussion
    Bullying behavior in organizations has become a topic of considerable research interest in recent years. In this
    article, we proposed a conceptualization suggesting that bullying by leaders can be construed as a form of
    organizational politics (Salin, 2003), in that leaders may employ bullying behavior as strategic attempts to manage
    impressions and influence others in order to maximize personal and/or organizational objectives, which can
    demonstrate both negative and positive consequences. As such, we believe this approach offers a supplementary,
    balanced perspective on destructive leadership.
    We break from the traditional stream of theory and research on bullying in that we suggest that politically skilled
    leaders may use bullying in a manner that can result in positive consequences. By bullying “low maturity” targets, there
    are potential positive outcomes not only for organizations, but for bullies as well. Organizations may get a short-term
    increase in productivity from underperforming employees as they attempt to comply with the bully’s demands.
    Furthermore, eventually such employees may self-select out of the organization, and the position may be filled by a
    more qualified individual. Furthermore, the audiences who observe the leader bullying may change their behavior and
    increase their productivity in order to avoid being a target. Finally, bullies may increase their own personal reputation
    and power by engaging in bullying behavior in situations, including against targets, conducive to its effectiveness.
    As a type of political behavior, leader bullying contributes to a broader understanding of “dark side” or destructive
    leadership and organizational processes (e.g., Hall, Hochwarter, Ferris, & Bowen, 2004). Furthermore, this
    conceptualization expands on the political perspectives on leadership, which have become of interest recently (e.g.,
    Ammeter et al., 2002; and the special issue of The Leadership Quarterly in 2004 on “Political Perspectives on
    The proposed conceptualization considers personal, contextual, and interactive antecedents of bullying behavior. It
    also argues that, like the strategic, calculative demonstration of emotion as an influence strategy (Liu et al., 2006),
    bullying can represent one of many “masks” (i.e., personas or strategies of influence) leaders don in different situations

in order to manage/convey a preconceived image, and therefore, either develop or maintain power, reputation, and
effectiveness. The fact of the matter is that we are at a quite early point in the evolution of our comprehension of leader
bullying behavior in organizations, and hopefully this proposed conceptualization will move us further along in our
understanding of this important phenomenon.
5.1. Directions for future research
The initial recommendation for future research in this relatively new area is to conduct tests of the proposed model.
Although we presented the model of leader bullying behavior with a reasonable degree of confidence, it is such a new area
of scientific inquiry that empirical testing is needed to establish the validity of its linkages, and place more confidence in a
definitive model that unquestionably articulates the precise set of antecedents, etiology, and consequences of leader
bullying behavior. At this point, we challenge the exclusively dispositional and situational views on bullying behavior,
and instead propose that leader bullying behavior is reflective of some complex cognitive intentional strategy to
maximize image and reputation, which is representative of a dispositional–contextual interactive model.
Furthermore, bullying may be a self-interested behavior engaged in because of the unrecorded discretion and
reduced accountability for behavior we grant those of greater esteem and reputation. However, we introduced the idea
that bullying may be used to accomplish organizational goals as well. An issue to examine in the future is to explore the
various agenda of leaders that employ bullying behavior (e.g., who they are trying to influence, what are they trying to
accomplish, what audience they are playing to, etc.).
Another issue to be investigated is whether bullying behavior of leaders is inherently negative, or if it can be
positive, as we suggested with assertive strategic bullying. Although it is intuitive to believe that bullying is a
predominantly negative behavior, there may be myriad examples of positive outcomes associated with bullying as we
discussed in this article. Further empirical studies need to be done on both the assertive, tactical and the assertive,
strategic forms of bullying to distinguish the various outcomes, both positive and negative. Bullying needs to be better
understood at the dyadic level as well. Is it possible that the bullying behavior — work outcome relationships are, at
best, weakly positive or negative, thus indicating that nonlinearity might better represent the form of relationship? Or, it
might be the case that the relationship between bullying and work outcomes changes as a function of various potential
boundary conditions or moderator variables.
Why should we be so concerned about bullying leaders? They exist and are difficult to ignore. We are all familiar
with this type of behavior/individual. This is the initial effort in the development of a workable taxonomy of the
antecedents, causes, outcomes, and recognition of this potentially pervasive leadership tactic. Continuation of this area
of inquiry will potentially provide insight into dealing with this type of behavior from an individual and organizational
perspective. Understanding leader bullying is essential if we are to harness its potential positive influence on
performance while minimizing its destructive influences in organizations.
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