Laissez-faire Leadership enables workplace bullying

Note: an assignment I wrote for Social Psychology (part of my MSc in Psychology). The assignment is a position statement that should answer the question: Is there evidence that group processes transfer to different contexts and cultures?

Laissez-faire is a passive leadership style with devastating effects on employees. Laissez-faire leaders do not recognise or motivate their employees nor listen to their demands, avoiding responsibility and decision-making (Skogstad et al., 2007). Laissez-faire leadership positively correlates with employees’ stress, causing role conflict and ambiguity (Kelloway et al., 2005). High workplace stress is associated with negative in-group behaviours, such as isolation and exclusion of employees, which represents workplace bullying (“the persistent exposure to interpersonal aggression and mistreatment from colleagues, superiors or subordinates”) (Einarsen et al., 2009). By allowing high levels of conflict among employees, laissez-faire leadership enables workplace bullying (Ågotnes et al., 2018).  

A longitudinal study in American higher education demonstrated that personal conflicts escalate without the leader’s intervention. Using the Bobo Doll social experiment (children who observe aggressive behaviour towards a doll will replicate it unless an adult intervenes to deem the behaviour unacceptable), Hollis (2019) demonstrated that if aggressive behaviour in the workplace is not corrected, it becomes a cultural norm. The study (N = 1,588) exposed a strong correlation between passive leadership styles and workplace bullying, complementing cross-sectional research from Ireland (N = 1,057), which reported that 15% of bullied employees had a laissez-faire supervisor, and New Zealand (N = 1,727), with 11% of bullied employees in the travel industry reporting working in an environment with high levels of laissez-faire management (Bentley et al., 2012).

A Norwegian longitudinal study demonstrated that employees involved in workplace conflict became victims of bullying within two years (N = 1,772), with laissez-faire leadership moderating this association (Ågotnes et al., 2018), while two cross-functional studies reported a strong positive correlation between laissez-faire leadership and workplace bullying: individuals working under a laissez-faire leader in Japan have a 4.3 times higher risk to experience workplace bullying (N = 317) (Tsuno & Kawakami, 2015), while a study on public servants in Vietnam (N = 207) showed a positive correlation of laissez-faire leadership with the number of instances of workplace bullying and a negative correlation with psychological safety, stating that laissez-faire leadership is bullying in itself. Furthermore, laissez-faire leadership creates low psychological safety in the workplace, allowing conflict to thrive, thus creating a groundwork for bullying (Nguyen et al., 2017).

In conclusion, longitudinal and cross-sectional research shows that laissez-faire leadership facilitates the development of the interpersonal conflict in organisations into workplace bullying, which transfers across cultures and contexts.


Ågotnes, K. W., Einarsen, S. V., Hetland, J., & Skogstad, A. (2018). The moderating effect of laissez-faire leadership on the relationship between co-worker conflicts and new cases of workplace bullying: A true prospective design. Human Resource Management Journal, 28(4), 555–568.

Bentley, T. A., Catley, B., Cooper-Thomas, H., Gardner, D., O’Driscoll, M. P., Dale, A., & Trenberth, L. (2012). Perceptions of workplace bullying in the New Zealand travel industry: Prevalence and management strategies. Tourism Management, 33(2), 351–360.

Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., & Notelaers, G. (2009). Measuring exposure to bullying and harassment at work: Validity, factor structure and psychometric properties of the Negative Acts Questionnaire-Revised. Work & Stress, 23(1), 24–44.

Hollis, P. L. (2019). Lessons from Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiments: Leadership’s Deliberate Indifference Exacerbates Workplace Bullying in Higher Education. Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education, 4, 085–102.

Kelloway, E. K., Sivanathan, N., Francis, L., & Barling, J. (2005). Poor leadership. In J. Barling, E. K. Kelloway & M. R. Frone (Eds.), Handbook of work stress. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Nguyen, D., Teo, S., Grover, S., Nguyen, P. N. (2017). Laissez-Faire Leadership Behaviors in Public Sector in Vietnam. In Muenjohn, N., & McMurray, A. The Palgrave Handbook of Leadership in Transforming Asia. Palgrave Macmillan.

O’Moore, M., & Lynch, J. (2007). Leadership, working environment and workplace bullying. International Journal of Organization Theory & Behavior, 10(1), 95–117.

Skogstad, A., Einarsen, S., Torsheim, T., Aasland, M. S., & Hetland, H. (2007). The destructiveness of laissez-faire leadership behaviour. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12(1), 80–92.

Tsuno, K., & Kawakami, N. (2015). Multifactor leadership styles and new exposure to workplace bullying: a six-month prospective study. Industrial Health, 53(2), 139–151.

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