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21,8 Dysfunctional organization
The role of leadership in motivating
698 dysfunctional work behaviors
David D. Van Fleet
School of Global Management and Leadership,
Arizona State University at the West Campus, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, and
Ricky W. Griffin
Department of Management, Mays Business School, Texas A&M University,
College Station, Texas, USA

Purpose – The purpose of this article is to expand and extend previous work on the role of
organizations in influencing deviant or dysfunctional behavior in those organizations.
Design/methodology/approach – Conclusions from previous work on the role of individuals and
organizations in influencing dysfunctional behavior is used to lead to a discussion of the interactions
between those two especially through organizational culture and leadership.
Findings – A model is developed that more carefully identifies how all of these factors come together,
resulting in no, little, some, or a lot of dysfunctional behavior.
Research limitations/implications – The model developed here can be employed to improve
understanding of the role of organization culture and leadership in motivating dysfunctional work
behaviors. Both the individual and the organization constructs utilized in the framework need more
complete conceptual development. In each instance, a more complex and integrative analysis of
diverse literatures needs to be undertaken. Clear messages regarding individual tendencies toward
violent behaviors are embedded in the literatures from such diverse areas as psychology, psychiatry,
criminal justice, medicine, sociology, organizational behavior, biology, social psychology, and
anthropology. A comprehensive review and synthesis could theoretically yield far more insights than
currently exist.
Practical implications – The proposed manifestations of dysfunctional behavior are most likely to
occur as the result of the interactive relationship between an individual displaying a relatively high
predisposition for violent behavior and an organization with a relatively high propensity to elicit
violence. Clearly, a better understanding of the characteristics of such an organization would assist
practicing managers in reducing the likelihood of occurrence of dysfunctional behavior.
Originality/value – This paper fills a gap in the literature about the role of organizations in
influencing dysfunctional behavior by delineating more fully the role of organizational culture and
Keywords Employee behaviour, Organizational culture, Social interaction, Leadership
Paper type Conceptual paper

Dysfunctional behavior falls within the broader category of antisocial behavior, which
Journal of Managerial Psychology is described as “any behavior that brings harm, or is intended to bring harm, to an
Vol. 21 No. 8, 2006
pp. 698-708 organization, its employees, or stakeholders” (Giacalone and Greenberg, 1997, p. vii).
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Dysfunctional/antisocial behavior, then, may range from low levels of
DOI 10.1108/02683940610713244 inappropriateness (e.g. inappropriate attire, alcohol use, smoking, inappropriate
behaviors, loud talking or radio playing, and tardiness) all the way to sabotage or Dysfunctional
violent behavior directed toward one or more individuals or the organization as a organization
Scholars who study dysfunctional work behavior typically have focused most of culture
their attention on the specific individual-level behaviors that might potentially
comprise this domain. Such behaviors include but are not limited to workplace
deviance, theft, aggression, violence, dishonesty, terrorism, sabotage, and an 699
assortment of other dysfunctional behaviors as reflected in the various papers found
in this issue. Most of these scholars, however, tend to ignore or downplay the role of
organizational factors in instigating dysfunctional behaviors.
Organizations should be profoundly interested in preventing dysfunctional
workplace behavior, particularly violence, because such behaviors can be very
costly or damaging to the organization. Indeed, the organization could face legal action
if a violent incident occurs and they can’t prove that they took steps to prevent it. Such
legal action could include worker’s compensation claims, OSHA rule violation charges,
or even civil liability for negligent hiring. Other costs to an organization include
immediate and direct costs of workplace violence – injury or death; clean-up, repair,
and replacement; hiring and training of new personnel; increased insurance premiums;
lost wages; and the like. There are also less immediate and more difficult to measure
costs, including decreased efficiency, productivity, and quality; interruption of
business operations; and decreased reputation and credibility of the organization.
This paper will develop the argument that organizational cultures vary in their
functionality in terms of contributing to or detracting from organizational performance
and effectiveness. A dysfunctional organization culture is defined as one that
constrains or limits individual- and group-level capabilities and/or that actually
encourages and rewards mediocre individual- and group-level performance. The paper
will also develop the argument that an organization’s leadership is likely to help create
and perpetuate such cultures. Implications for future theory and research will be

The role of the individual

In general, theorists and researchers who study behavior in organizations direct their
attention at how various individual and/or group behaviors benefit and enhance
organizations and the antecedent conditions associated with those beneficial
behaviors. The theories and models that have been developed, therefore, tend to
focus on how processes and factors within organizations affect variables such as job
satisfaction, employee motivation, performance, and organizational commitment.
Their approaches to the study of leadership typically examine at the group level how
the organization might improve leadership effectiveness and the leader’s ability to
motivate workers so as to achieve high levels of performance and goal attainment. The
dependent variables of interest, then, are usually things like cohesiveness, performance
norms, communication patterns, and group-level performance as well as individual
responses to a group or team context.
These theories and models generally assume that as cause-and-effect relationships
among key variables are identified, managers and organizations will be able to
increase desired individual and organizational outcomes by manipulating the causes
associated with those outcomes. A basic assumption of job characteristics research, for
JMP example, is that if researchers can identify specific job dimensions or attributes that
21,8 lead to employee motivation and high performance, managers can then redesign those
jobs to increase those dimensions or attributes. This, then, would improve employee
motivation and performance.
Newer studies of organizational behavior, on the other hand, are investigating
behaviors that are considerably less functional in that they relate to negative
700 consequences or involve direct costs to the individuals who make up organizations as
well as to the organizations themselves. These behaviors have been called the dark side
of organizational behavior (Griffin and O’Leary-Kelly, 2004). While the work of Griffin
and O’Leary-Kelly concentrated on violent behavior, it may be readily extended to
include all forms of dysfunctional or antisocial behavior in organizations. Clearly, these
forms of behavior should be controlled, minimized, or eliminated altogether
(O’Leary-Kelly et al., 1996).
Consider, for example, an extreme form of such dark side behavior – murder.
Murder in the workplace is among the major causes of employee deaths, and women
are often affected to a greater degree than are men. Indeed, ten percent of all workplace
fatalities in 2004 were homicides (US Department of Labor, 2005). So prevalent has it
become that workplace homicide has been identified as the fastest growing form of
murder in the USA (Filipczak, 1993). Less extreme dark-side behaviors may involve
physical assault through such actions as pushing or shoving, slapping or hitting, or
rap. One study estimated more than two million US workers are physically attacked at
work each year (Northwestern National Life Insurance Company, 1993). While
individuals frequently may incur the greatest costs from such behaviors, the
organization may incur costs as well – decreased productivity, medical and legal
expenses, lost work time, lowered quality, and a damaged culture and public image.
It has been proposed that all individuals enter organizations with some potential
predisposition to exhibit violent behaviors (Griffin and Lopez, 2004; Denenberg and
Braverman, 1999). That predisposition can range from very low to very high. The
greater the predisposition, the greater the likelihood that the individual will, at some
point, display violent behavior. Most scholars in this area focus on individuals with a
very high predisposition for violent behavior. The backgrounds and personalities of
those individuals with a high predisposition for violent behavior are frequently the
focus of attention so that such individuals can be identified by the organization in an
effort to prevent or minimize violence.
Examining the fundamental underpinnings of predispositions toward violence
requires surveying several literatures, particularly biology, psychology, and sociology.
A detailed study of those literatures is beyond the scope of this paper, but some general
observations are in order. In particular, genetic and biological factors and personality
should be considered.
The argument for the influence of genetic and biological factors is dependent on an
examination of the individual’s mental health. The origins of violent and aggressive
behaviors have been linked to endocrine influences and brain structures (Brennan,
1998). The limbic system, biochemistry, genetics, levels of dopamine and serotonin,
and mental illness has also been suggested as causally related to violent behavior
(Arboleda-Florez et al., 1998; Brennan, 1998). Attempts to establish a link between such
factors and aggressive behavior, however, have received only mixed results (Brennan,
Another area of research with implications for understanding an individual’s Dysfunctional
predisposition for dysfunctional behavior involves determinants and personality organization
factors. Determinants such as social influences, including family background, and
situations are known to greatly impact the exhibition of individual behavior to varying culture
degrees, but those influences are dependent on the individual’s personality (Neuman
and Baron, 1998). On the other hand, various personality factors may more directly
serve as dispositions for violent behavior (Berkowitz, 1993). Those factors include 701
personality types that are emotionally reactive, that display under-controlled
aggression (those who lack the restraint and have weak inhibitions against
aggression), and in the extreme sense, those personality types that can be described as
finding pleasure in hurting or causing discomfort in others (Berkowitz, 1993).
Type A behavior patterns, self-monitoring behavior, and hostile attributional bias
may also be involved (Neuman and Baron, 1998). A hostile attributional bias refers to a
personality factor where the individual has a tendency to perceive others as behaving
aggressively towards him/her, thus resulting in retaliatory behavior from within the
individual (Neuman and Baron, 1998). Type A individuals are frequently described as
impatient, irritable, and controlling (Neuman and Baron, 1998). Compared with Type B
personalities, the A’s may more frequently become angry and lose their tempers,
display aggressive behaviors, and experience higher frequencies of conflict (Neuman
and Baron, 1998).
Thus, genetic and biological factors, personality, values, experiences, and motives
are all likely to affect an individual’s predisposition to display dysfunctional behavior.
Since most individuals rarely display extreme levels of dysfunctional behavior, this
predisposition may be quite low in most people. Being low does not meant that it does
not exist, however. One cannot confirm that a trait or predisposition does not exist
simply because it rarely or never manifests itself. Rather, the argument for
predisposition becomes more compelling where individuals do exhibit extreme levels
of dysfunctional behavior. In virtually all cases, for instance, detailed background
reviews of violent individuals uncover earlier warning signs such as cruelty toward
animals, interpersonal hostility, interests in weapons, proneness to making verbal
threats, and so forth. Thus, there is a reasonable basis for the suggestion that every
person has a predisposition to display dysfunctional behavior under certain

The role of the organization

While most research in the area of dysfunctional behavior has focused on the
individual, it seems quite likely that the organization also plays a pivotal role. For one
thing, the organization is important in that it provides a setting in which the individual
may display dysfunctional behavior. The individual spends most of his waking hours
at the job site, thus increasing the timeframe within which he is displaying his
behavior. An organization provides people toward whom the individual may find it
easier to display this behavior, rather than toward the family members he loves. And
the work setting provides all kinds of stimulants that could provoke individuals who
already have a high propensity toward dysfunctional behavior.
For another, even though few scholars have considered the context of dysfunctional
behavior, it seems reasonable to suggest that organizational factors are often cited as
the catalyst for dysfunctional events. For instance, pressure and stress in the
JMP organization, styles or patterns of supervision, and how termination and demotion are
21,8 handled by the organization are often cited as triggers for violence. Recently, the
organization’s compensation or reward structure, social pressures to conform, the
presence of negative and untrusting attitudes, unclear performance feedback,
perceived unfair treatment, and violations of trust have been identified as
organizational factors leading to deviant behavior (Litzky et al., 2006).
702 Organizational factors that are most influential are its history; the values and vision
of its leaders; the shared experiences, beliefs, stories, and rituals of its employees; the
reward and incentive system; and organizational norms about performance and
behavior, all of which contribute to an organization’s culture (Trice, 1988; Trice and
Beyer, 1993). Indeed, an organization’s culture has been shown to be an important
influence on both positive and negative consequences within organizations (Guerra
et al., 2005).
The organization’s culture develops over time and becomes a powerful force for
shaping the behavior of those in the organization and for newcomers to the
organization. It interacts with characteristics of individuals to create a propensity to
elicit dysfunctional behavior. The organization itself has some theoretic propensity to
elicit dysfunctional behavior. Similar to the individual’s predisposition to display
dysfunctional behavior, the propensity of an organization’s culture to elicit
dysfunctional behaviors can range from very low to very high. This propensity
describes the range of potential influence that an organization can have in contributing
to and eliciting dysfunctional behavior from individuals who are members of that
The organization can contribute to displays of dysfunctional behavior in one of two
ways, by “creating social conditions that promote violence by generating aggressive
inclinations” or by “lowering restraints against violent actions” (Berkowitz, 1993,
p. 281). Even when the individual predisposition is high, the actual display of
dysfunctional behavior is “most likely to occur when cognitively based inhibitory
restraints are minimal” (Berkowitz, 1993; Carlson et al., 1990, p. 622). The organization
can therefore become an important contributing factor to whether or not violent
displays of behavior are expressed by the individual, especially when, for example, the
threat of punishment from the organization is minimal or absent (Berkowitz, 1993).
Organizational influences conceivably can also be enhanced through social reality
construction processes as described by the social information processing approach to
organizations (Salancik and Pfeffer, 1978). Social information processing suggests that
an individual’s behavior in a social environment is guided by the displays of behavior
from others within their environment on information about values, norms,
expectations, and behavior outcomes (Glomb and Liao, 2003). The individual learns,
then, by observing what others do and what they can or cannot “get away with”. The
structure, values, norms, and procedures of an organization, therefore, are vital for
determining how individuals might respond to organization related situations. In
particular, Schein (2004) suggests that an organization’s culture identifies what things
members of the organization should pay attention to, how they react emotionally, and
what actions they should take.
Etzioni (1975) suggests that organizational cultures, then, can be ones in which
members of the organization identify with the organization. They tend to be committed
to the organization’s goals and need little direct supervision as there is consensus about
what needs to be done and why. But organizational cultures can involve less-consensus Dysfunctional
and be more transactional in nature. In these cultures, individuals participate only so organization
long as the exchange system is perceived as rewarding their behaviors. On the other
hand, in yet other cultures members are alienated and defensive. They view the leaders culture
as enemies and are antagonistic toward the leaders and the organization. Clearly, these
latter forms of organizational cultures are the ones more likely to elicit violence.
Characteristics of the organization, and particularly its culture, subsequently affect 703
its propensity to elicit dysfunctional behavior. Organizational cultures that constrain
or limit individual – and group-level capabilities and/or that actually encourage and
reward mediocre individual – and group-level performance are termed dysfunctional
organizational cultures, and the organizations are hence referred to as dysfunctional

Interactions between the individual and the organization

Assuming that the constructs of individual predispositions for dysfunctional behavior
and organizational propensities to elicit dysfunctional behaviors are, in fact, valid
constructs, it then becomes possible to relate them to one another as in Figure 1. In the
figure, individual predisposition to engage in dysfunctional behavior is represented on
the vertical axis; organizational propensity to elicit dysfunctional behavior is
represented on the horizontal axis. Moreover, each is presented as a dichotomous
construct broken down into high and low levels. The resulting configuration yields
four possible situations.
Situation 1 exists when there is a high (or strong) predisposition on the part of an
individual to engage in dysfunctional behavior but there is a low propensity on the part
of the organization to elicit such behavior. We propose that in this case there will be a
moderate incidence of dysfunctional behavior derived primarily from the individual’s
predisposition. Likewise, situation 3, determined by a low propensity for the individual
to engage in dysfunctional behavior but in which there is a high propensity by the
organization to elicit such behavior, is also likely to result in a moderate incidence of

Figure 1.
A framework of
determinants of
dysfunctional behavior in
JMP dysfunctional behavior this time resulting more from the organizational influences
21,8 than those of the individual.
Situation 2 represents the situation with the highest incidence of dysfunctional
behavior. This volatile situation reflects the combination of a high predisposition for
dysfunctional behavior coupled with a high organizational propensity to elicit violent
behavior. In sharp contrast, if individual predisposition for dysfunctional behavior and
704 organizational propensity to elicit dysfunctional behavior are both low, as in situation
4, the lowest incidence of dysfunctional behavior will be present.

The role of leaders

Organization culture evolves from myriad sources, including the organization’s
history, its pattern of successes and failures, its founder, and its policies and practices.
Leaders, however, are perhaps the most powerful determinant of organization culture.
For example, leaders are the ones who set the tone of the organization, define its values
and norms, and create and maintain a persona of what the organization is like.
Hence, if the position is taken that a culture with a high propensity to elicit
dysfunctional behavior by its members is itself a dysfunctional culture, it seems
instructive to examine how that culture developed. As previously noted, leaders most
likely play a major role. For example, if a top manager is commonly known to be
untruthful, if a leader does not respect the rights of others, or if the leader puts profits
before all else, others in the organization will likely recognize the signals. As the
signals get institutionalized throughout the firm, its culture will become increasingly
dysfunctional. In this way, the leader’s values are “taught” to others and shape their
behavior in the organization.
What leaders pay attention to sends powerful messages throughout the
organization. What do leaders seem to notice, what comments do they make, what
do they seem to reward and punish? What agendas do they set for meetings? How do
they react to problems and/or change? Is there a code of ethics and is it actually
followed? How is budgeting handled – top down or bottom up? Who gets promoted or
receives special privileges? These are all important actions by which leaders influence
an organization’s culture and the behavior of those in the organization.
Culture and leadership style are major influences on individuals (Lok and Crawford,
2004). An organization’s culture is shaped by its leaders, but it also shapes the behavior
of its leaders (Brown and Thornborrow, 1996). Characteristics of organizations have
been shown to influence the ethics or integrity of executives (Tourigny et al., 2003), and
qualities of leaders have been shown to be critical in the development of an
organization’s culture (Ribière and Sitar, 2003). Dysfunctional organizations generally
fail to achieve their goals and frequently are notable for poor leaders. Dysfunctions in
top management have been shown to prohibit groups from effectively accomplishing
their tasks (Paul et al., 2002). Kets de Vries (2004, 1991) suggests that an organization
can become dysfunctional because its culture reflects the dysfunctions of top managers
(see also Kersten, 2005).
Smith (2000) suggests that dysfunctional organizational cultures are likely to result
when leaders have poor “people” skills. With a long emphasis on productivity,
efficiency, and the “bottom line,” many organizational leaders have not developed
strong interpersonal skills and, indeed, may instead have begun to abuse their
authority in dealing with subordinates. Skills in handling change and stress, as well as
in dealing with conflict and aggression, communication, motivation and time Dysfunctional
management have all been relegated to minor roles. Under these conditions, then, organization
leaders may unintentionally contribute to the development of dysfunctional
organizational cultures. culture
Burton (2002) has taken this a step further and identified several behaviors
associated with leaders who create dysfunctional organizational climates. She suggests
that such leaders engage in threatening behaviors toward subordinates; display 705
emotional or verbal abuse and bullying; are likely to harass subordinates in one way or
another; and may even use physical assault against subordinates.
The social information processing approach clearly demonstrates the strong
influence that leaders have as role models. The leader sets the tone for his or her
followers through his or her own visible behavior that communicates assumptions and
values to others as well as through informal messages (Lewine, 1995). But role models
can be models of the wrong kind. For instance, bad examples are set for others by
abusive or bullying leaders; those who quickly assign blame and don’t set priorities;
those who make the same errors over and over; those who claim that they “don’t know”
or have bad information; leaders who worry about “my watch” rather than long-term
organizational effectiveness; those who think that apologizing is all that is necessary to
“make things right;” and those who cook the books, pad their expense accounts, and
behave unethically if not illegally. It should come as no surprise that in organizations
whose leaders display those behaviors, dysfunctional behavior will occur more
frequently than in organizations whose leaders display more reasonable and ethical
behavior themselves.

Directions for theory and research

The use of the framework presented here can potentially improve our understanding of
the role of organization culture and leadership in motivating dysfunctional work
behaviors. However, much work remains to be done. Specifically, new theory
development work and empirical research are both fully necessary.
For one thing, both the individual and the organization constructs utilized in the
framework need more complete conceptual development. In each instance, for example,
a more complex and integrative analysis of diverse literatures needs to be undertaken.
Clear messages regarding individual tendencies toward violent behaviors are
embedded in the literatures from such diverse areas as psychology, psychiatry,
criminal justice, medicine, sociology, organizational behavior, biology, social
psychology, and anthropology. A comprehensive review and synthesis could
theoretically yield far more insights than currently exist.
Similarly, dysfunctional perspectives on both organizational culture and leadership
can obviously be elevated through a focused and in-depth review and analysis. The
same literatures noted above, with the addition of organization theory, could yield rich,
substantive, and sophisticated frameworks and models of these constructs.
We also propose that manifestations of violent behavior are most likely to occur as
the result of the interactive relationship between an individual displaying a relatively
high predisposition for violent behavior and an organization with a relatively high
propensity to elicit violence. Theoretically, then, more complete understandings of the
various core constructs could then lead to better and more intricate predictions of
interactions and other interrelationships among those constructs.
JMP The model developed here suggests that an individual in an organization with a
21,8 dysfunctional culture will either leave the organization, stay with the organization and
not display dysfunctional or violent behavior, or will display such behavior perhaps
triggered by a stimulus event (i.e. a public reprimand, demotion, or termination).
Theoretical advancements could also provide meaningful understandings as to which
of these is more likely and under what conditions. Indeed, each of the cells in the
706 proposed model merits careful attention to specify the individual and organization
conditions underlying it.
More carefully derived categorizations or classifications may also provide greater
insight into the nature of triggering events for dysfunctional behavior, particularly
those associated with leader behavior. Research is clearly needed to determine whether
certain kinds of triggers are more or less likely to stimulate various kinds of
dysfunctional behaviors than are others.
Beyond the array of theoretical imperatives, there are also numerous empirical
issues that warrant attention. Unfortunately, these concepts are sufficiently sensitive
that “standard” research methods may be applicable. For instance, longitudinal
research could help further our understanding of the role that organizational responses
to dysfunctional behavior plays in the organization’s subsequent propensity to elicit
such behaviors. It could also be possible to determine and develop protocols for
organizations to follow when dysfunctional behavior occurs, so as to decrease the
potential for future episodes.
However, few organizations would be amenable to hosting a cross-sectional survey
or experimental intervention targeted at the key underlying research questions either
implied here or to be developed through more rigorous theoretical explication. As a
result, researchers will need to be especially creative in their pursuit of answers. For
example, methodologies such as retrospective accounts, direct observation, and other
qualitative approaches may need to be employed. Hopefully, however, the results will
be more than worth the complications from using nontraditional approaches.

Most of the work on dysfunctional work behavior has concentrated on individual-level
behaviors. The organization as a contributor to dysfunctional behaviors has seldom
been more than just mentioned. Our work suggests that organizational cultures may
contribute to or detract from dysfunctional behavior in a variety of ways. Since leaders
are an important determinant of organizational culture, we have argued that they
therefore play an important role in motivating dysfunctional work behaviors.
Hopefully, the concepts and model presented here will stimulate empirical research to
verify or refute our ideas and to further the understanding of the role that
organizations and organizational leaders play with regard to dysfunctional behavior in

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About the authors

Dr David D. Van Fleet’s work focuses on management history, leadership, strategy, and
workplace violence and terrorism. He has authored or co-authored over 200 presentations and
publications. He is a past editor of the Journal of Management and the current editor of the
Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management. He is a Fellow of both the Academy of
Management and the Southern Management Association and is listed in Who’s Who in America
(5th ed.) and Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers (Vol. V). Dr Van Fleet can be contacted at:
Dr Griffin’s research interests include workplace violence, employee health and well-being in
the workplace, and workplace culture. In addition to his research and publications, Dr Griffin has
also written several textbooks. He has served as editor of the Journal of Management and as an
officer in two regional and two professional divisions of the Academy of Management. He is a
Fellow of both the Academy of Management and the Southern Management Association.

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