Bad bosses: The role of (non) leadership on workplace incivility

Case studies

Bad bosses: The role of (non) leadership on workplace incivility

USA, Academic Research, April 2015

Much research has been dedicated to the positive outcomes delivered by transformational leadership. But what happens when you take the leader out of leadership? Recent research from the USA shows that a laissez-faire approach to management can breed incivility in the workplace, negatively impacting culture and ultimately the bottom-line.

Over the past 20 years, a great deal of research has been undertaken examining the theory of transformational leadership – arguably one of the most pervasive theories of leadership to date. First described by Burns (1978) and then developed by Bass (1985), the theory describes a spectrum of leadership and management behaviours in terms of two distinct leadership styles:

  • Transformational Leadership: Characterised by inspirational motivation, role modelling, challenging and stretching of staff, and a recognition and consideration for the individual. Transformational leaders are focussed on the future and inspire followers to achieve new and better outcomes and challenge the status quo.
  • Transactional Leadership: Characterised by the use of reward and punishment to drive compliance with rules and increase the efficiency and productivity of established routines. The transactional leader establishes clear structure and boundaries and often manages by exception, only rewarding and punishing outcomes that deviate from the norm.

While on face value these styles may appear as polar opposites, according to Transformational leadership theory, both forms of leadership are required in a successful organisation.

According to Bass:

“transformational leadership styles build on the transactional base in contributing to the extra effort and performance of followers”

In this way, a successful leader must employ both styles of leadership to be successful. The positive aspects of transactional leadership - goal setting, reward, attention to performance, for example - are critical to 'getting work done’. Transformational leadership behaviours, meanwhile, like investing time in developing other leaders, and stimulating and challenging staff, are necessary for driving change and developing and growing individuals and an organisation.

A great deal of research speaks to the positive outcomes of transformational and transactional leadership. A recent article by Assistant Professor Breevaart and colleagues (Erasmus University Rotterdam), for example, showed that transformational leadership and the use of contingent rewards has a positive impact on day-to-day employee engagement and perceptions of support and autonomy in the work environment. 

But what happens when these elements are lacking?

Compared to transformational and transactional leadership, passive leadership is a laissez-faire leadership approach characterised by “passive management by exception” (where a leader waits until a problem has occurred before taking action) and behaviours such as avoiding decisions, and indifference. The passive leader is reluctant to respond until a situation cannot be ignored any longer.

A recent article by Associate Professors Crystal Harold and Brian Holtz (Temple University Philadelphia) examines this concept as it relates to civility in the workplace – exploring the effect that the absence of deliberate leadership has on employee behaviours towards colleagues.


This research explored whether passive leadership affects peoples’ perceptions of incivility (for example, rudeness, discourteousness) in the workplace, and whether it impacts the likelihood of a person being uncivil towards others.


There were 2 main hypotheses in this study:

People’s personal experience of incivility in the workplace will be positively related to their own uncivil behaviours, or in other words, people who experience incivility are more likely to be uncivil. Further, this relationship will be more prominent when there is a greater degree of passive leadership. A greater degree of passive leadership in an organisation will lead to increased perceptions of incivility from others, and an increase in uncivil behaviours towards others.

To investigate these hypotheses, Harold and colleagues recruited 122 employee-supervisor pairs (244 people in total) from a variety of occupations including retail, health care and the public service. Participants were recruited through a “snowball sampling” technique where undergraduate business students personally asked their work supervisors to participate in the study.

Depending on their role in the pair, participants were asked to complete either:

  1.  An employee survey, which assessed employee perceptions of supervisor’s leadership behaviours, and personal experiences with incivility; or
  2. A supervisor survey containing self-report measures of leadership behaviour, and ratings of employee’s own uncivil behaviour.


Consistent with hypotheses, the authors of this study identified three key findings:

  1. People’s experience of behaviour incivility in the workplace is positively associated with their own tendency to behave uncivilly
  2. Passive leadership is positively associated with both the experience of behavioural incivility, and the tendency for an employee to behave uncivilly
  3. The higher the degree of passive leadership, the stronger the association between experience incivility and the tendency to behave uncivilly.

Taken together, these findings suggest that passive leadership can impact employee incivility in a number of ways.

First, passive leadership has a direct effect on the degree of uncivil behaviour between colleagues. While passive leadership is not itself an uncivil behaviour, the results of this study suggest that by failing to promote positive behavioural norms or take action in advance of uncivil behaviour occurring, passive leaders create a context and culture where incivility is allowed to propagate.

Second, passive leadership indirectly increases uncivil behaviour between colleagues by increasing the personal experience of incivility – that is, employees who experience incivility are more likely to respond in kind. This means that employees who experience passive leadership are more likely to experience higher levels of incivility in the workplace, and in turn more likely to respond with uncivil behaviours themselves. While no definitive cause is identified, the authors speculate that this effect may be due to a re-direction of the negative emotions and thoughts that arise from experienced incivility.

Finally, passive leadership and experienced incivility have a bigger effect on uncivil behaviour when they occur together than when they occur alone. Put another way, the relationship between passive leadership and the experience of incivility (and hence uncivil behaviour) is stronger at higher levels of passive leadership. The authors suggest the reason for this may be that the experience of passive leadership in combination with behavioural incivility from colleagues signals to employees that incivility is acceptable, which thereby amplifies the relationship between the experience of incivility and personal uncivil behaviour.

In summary, the results suggested that a lack of deliberate, active leadership has a direct influence on incivility in the workplace. As the authors put it:

“employees who work under passive managers are more likely to encounter workplace incivility and behave in an uncivil manner themselves.”


While the passive leadership style explored in this research may seem on face value to be overtly negative and therefore easy to identify and avoid, it is in fact an easy trap to fall into. Some managers assume, for example, that a hands-off approach is beneficial to driving autonomy amongst staff, and necessary to avoid micro-managing. The danger of this belief, however, is that once it appears in the workplace, in the absence of direct intervention incivility will spread throughout the workforce directly (and negatively) impacting the culture of the organisation and ultimately its bottom line.

To avoid this ‘spiralling incivility,’ leaders can employ some of the following techniques:

  • Recognise that proactive leadership and oversight is not incompatible with the provision of autonomy to staff – leaders can and should do both
  • Try to remove ambiguity around where and when leadership intervention is appropriate – for example, establish clear boundaries, guidelines and penalties for undesirable behaviours in the workplace
  • Role model positive and civil work behaviours. Positive behaviours start and end with the leader, so leaders should actively set the tone for what is acceptable. Example behaviours could include not checking a mobile phone during meetings, communicating clear expectations, and emphasising inclusion as a core value
  • Remember that passive leadership can actually be more destructive that the absence of good conduct and as damaging as actively role-modelling negative behaviours.

To read the full article, see Harold C. M., & Holtz, B.C., (2015) “The effects of passive leadership on workplace incivility” Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol 36, No. 1 (2015), pp.16-38.

For more information contact: Andrew Comensoli

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