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In light of recent events in France (May 2019) where top-leaders from France Télécom are on trial based on a wave of suicides – this article has been updated from an original post in March 2017

Executives from France Télécom, are facing a sentence of up to one year in prison in addition to a fine of €15.000 for moral harassment. The sentences come in light of a wave of staff suicides. According to the Guardian, 29 staff took their life in 2002, 23 in 2003, and more than 22 have killed themselves since February 2008 in addition to several suicide attempts, severe depressions, and other sufferings.

Employees have killed themselves in the office buildings, one jumped out of the window, one man set himself on fire in the company car park, another stabbed himself after leaving a note saying France Télécom was the only reason for his suicide. In fact, suicide notes speak of ‘management by terror’, ‘overwork’ feeling ‘helpless and ‘angry’ over work issues.

The news of the prior France Télécom executives being on trial for maltreatment of staff goes global as it is the largest case example of a major company going to court facing such charges.

Professor Stewart Clegg says about the trials:

The upcoming trials suggest, as it should, that the law does not recognize that managerial privilege extends to the assumption by managers of rights of bullying, harassment, and setting of extreme and unreachable goals.

Reigns of terror are unacceptable where ever we find them and have no place in democracies, whether of the market, the polity or civil society. Business organizations are not a space of absolutism, they are not remote or separate from civil society,, but must constitute an order that complies with legal, normative and ethical codes.

The evidence from the specific case speaks of ‘social violence as a method of management’ and corporate policies aiming to undermine employees and create a climate of anxiety that would cause people to resign. Unfortunately, France Télécom is hardly the only example of fatal leadership in practice.

We need a stronger focus on the dangers of fatal leadership approaches and greater knowledge of what to do when recognizing it.

Work-related suicide is rarely studied. Professor Stewart Clegg – one of the most published and cited researchers on strategy and organizations – is one of the few, who have recently researched the matter. I catch him on his way through Lyon, France, to get his thoughts on fatal leadership approaches and an authoritarian leadership style in particular. 

Fatal Leadership Approaches – Can Leadership Kill?

Can bad leadership kill? To most of us, the question sounds extreme. The answer is yes, bad leadership in our workplaces can kill the will to live, yet we cannot isolate leadership influence as such to say this is the only factor leading to suicide. Still, we can identify that those places with toxic leadership have more suicides than those places employing healthy leadership styles.

It is one of those topics largely left in the dark. We don’t talk so much about it, we don’t research it much and it is rarely part of any public debate.

Every year, 800,000 people commit suicide. The World Health Organization estimates that for each death, there are about 20 attempted suicides. Therein each is estimated to have on average three or four family members, this equals the entire populations of Canada and Australia combined being affected by suicide or attempted suicide every year. Moreover, suicide is, in fact, the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds globally (WHO).

In relation to work, Suicide Prevention Australia estimates that about 17% of suicides in Australia are work-related. Furthermore, a report (in Danish) that recently caught my attention shows that 1,400 Danes die each year due to work-related stress caused by bad leadership. The area of work-related suicide still needs to be mapped, yet the numbers speak clearly of a need to look into the causes of work-related suicide.

How Fatal can a Leadership Approach Be?

Research tells us that an authoritarian leadership style has many negative consequences such as stress and demotivation, but how dangerous is it?

By authoritarian leadership style, we here refer to a leadership style that is characterized by leaders having close control over employees, dictating procedures and activities, strictly enforcing rules, regulations and penalties and so forth.

I decided to pose the question to Professor Stewart Clegg from the University of Technology, Sydney. With co-authors Miguel Pina e Cunha and Arménio Rego, he has researched suicide as a work and organizational phenomenon. Their research was published in Business and Society Review late 2016.

Using the seminal work of Emilie Durkheim in his book: Suicide (1897), their article reflects on the suicidal waves at France Telecom, today known as Orange, and at Foxconn, China.

The story is one of solidarity or a lack thereof. While France Telecom suffered from bonds being broken during difficult transition processes, at Foxconn bonds had not been established to begin with, and employees suffered from a lack of belonging.

Stewart Clegg fatal leadership approaches

What we learn and can apply to other organizations from this study is the major importance of the institutional nature of life in the organizations as well as the negative effects of an authoritarian leadership and management style.

Fatal Leadership Approaches

VIBEKE:

Stewart, we know that some leadership styles leave much to wish for, but how dangerous is an authoritarian leadership and management style?

STEWART CLEGG:

Extremely. Think of Trump and his leadership and management style – he popularized an authoritarian style on his TV Show – “You’re Fired” – and that helped to normalize the narcissistic authoritarianism he displayed on the campaign and has continued to display since becoming President.

The most dangerous aspect is the self-certainty and self-belief, the reluctance to admit that others may have something useful to offer from outside the bubble of self-importance and sycophancy. For authoritarian leaders, the tendency is for communication, coordination, and control to become overtaken by secrecy, self-centeredness, and sycophancy.

VIBEKE:

Many of us think of an authoritarian leadership style as belonging to another century. Why are so many leaders still embracing an authoritarian leadership style?

STEWART CLEGG:

Habit, predisposition, and socialization – especially in elite schools and universities. If you attend schools and universities that are quite clear about reproducing a ruling class then it should not be surprising how that sense of entitlement goes along with the education.

VIBEKE:

Your research shows to a disturbing degree how work can kill the will to live. To what extent are leaders responsible for this and how can leaders avoid this from happening?

STEWART CLEGG:

Leadership entails responsibilities; one is to provide interesting and meaningful work, work that captures the engagement of those doing it; when this is the case everyone is a winner.

Work that is repetitive, mind-numbing, dulling, dirty and dangerous – is better done by robots – the uniquely creative and intelligence attributes of people are what can make organizations great – leaders make organizations (and countries) great again by encouraging and learning from polyphony, from encouraging innovation and dissent in thinking rather than seeking to impose an orthodoxy.

Solidarity is at Play

Severe problems emerge when people find themselves in places and situations where they are stripped of their individuality and moreover their human bonds of solidarity, the authors explain.

At this ‘intersection’ employees become disconnected not only from each other but also from collective meaning. This means in essence that employees become disconnected from shared beliefs and the way these act as a unifying force.

“Creating organizations where solidarity is expressed in a healthy, functional way is, therefore, a social imperative that should have attracted the attention of business ethicists and organizational scholars” (Clegg, Cunha & Rego 2016: 393)

How to Stay Clear of Fatal Leadership Approaches

In the understanding of suicide and misery as related to workplaces and leadership, the important question is how can we avoid these fatal situations?

Stewart Clegg gives the following words of advice in the UTS Newsroom:

– Organizations should remember, they are not just workplaces, but also ‘human communities’

– Managers should avoid destructive patterns of work, such as excessive pace that leads to unacceptable levels of stress

– Companies must also ensure their suppliers meet the highest standards of care for their workers

– At a higher level, government and regulators should examine, diagnose and discourage dangerous management practice not just because workers deserve protection, but also because of the implications for mounting health-care costs

– Identifying acceptable working conditions that should be applied globally also helps create a level playing field in trade

– Leaders should be trained to create psychologically safe environments

– Corporate statements should go beyond words to be reflected in reality. A Foxconn corporate social responsibility report used the word ‘love’ 13 times, yet showed little of it in practice

We need more Research about Suicide as a Work-Related Matter

I commend the authors on taking up this highly under-researched area of suicide as a work and organizational phenomenon. It is, unfortunately, an area of social research proving itself to be more and more relevant, hence also one we cannot allow being ignored.

It is critical that research not only focus on stories of success, large corporations, and popular topics. Just as important is the research of barriers, taboos and those topics that never reach the evening news.

Clegg, Cunha, and Rego express this in the following way in their article:

“The recent interest in compassionate organizing (Dutton et al. 2014; Simpson et al. 2013) should not lead us to ignore those cases marked by a lack of compassion, solidarity, and rich forms of intersubjective relationality as organizational outcomes. On the contrary, we should see compassionate organizing as an effective antidote against toxicity in workplaces, for the sake of the greater good. There is little more toxic than the voluntary extinguishment of life by young people” (2016).

Please leave your comments and thoughts below. If you know about interesting research results on the matter, please leave a note about these, and I will incorporate them in a list of further readings.

References

Clegg, Stewart, Miguel Pina e Cunha and Arménio Rego (2016): Explaining Suicide in Organizations: Durkheim Revisited. Business and Society Review, Vol. 121. No. 3: 391-414.

1 COMMENT

  1. What a super interesting – not least important – article on a highly relevant topic – that we know just too little of: great work Vibeke!
    I have done a bit of research on organizational life and death my self so your text reminds me of some references that might be of interest to others: I’ll list a few themes…
    – Dead managers and organizational death (Sutton)
    – Legacy organizational identity (Glynn)
    – Dirty work and stigma (Goffman)
    – Suicide in academia (The Guardian: PhD theme)
    – Financial crisis and death – from suicide and lack of medicine

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