by Ben Perlmutter

How Successful Leaders Help Organizations Thrive, Part 2

Last week, QuantumListing featured an interview on the blog and webinar with Matt Paknis, leadership development coach and author of the recent book Successful Leaders Aren’t Bullies.

Our conversation dove deep into the dynamics of workplace bullying, and how we can stop it. You can read the first part of our interview here and watch the video replay of the webinar here.

In the second part of our interview here, Matt explains how bullying at work is influenced by epigenetics.


David Perlmutter: Related to this, in your book, you discuss how bullying at work can be influenced by epigenetics. Can you please explain this?

Matt Paknis: Epigenetics is the study of how biological mechanisms will switch genes on and off, affecting how genes are read by cells, and subsequently whether the cells should produce relevant proteins.  Epigenetics either controls genes through nature: a cell’s specialization (e.g., skin cell, blood cell, hair cell, liver cells, etc.) and nurture: where environmental stimuli can cause genes to be turned off or turned on. 

Epigenetics is influenced by everything; what you eat, where you live, who you interact with, when you sleep, how you exercise, even aging – all of these can cause chemical modifications on the genes and turn those genes on or off over time. Epigenetics Makes Us Unique.  They determine why some people have blonde hair or darker skin and why some people hate the taste of mushrooms or eggplant. The different combinations of genes are turned on or off to make each one of us unique.   

Research also indicates some epigenetic changes can be inherited.  In certain diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s, and with unhealthy behaviors like abuse and bullying, various genes will be switched into the opposite state, away from the normal/healthy state.

According to a 2015 article by Dan Hurley in Discover, “ insights of behavioral epigenetics [reveal that] traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA.” He goes on to quote findings by Moshe Szyf, a molecular biologist and geneticist at McGill University in Montreal and his co-researcher, neurobiologist Michael Meaney:

“Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn.

“Or not. If your grandmother was adopted by nurturing parents, you might be enjoying the boost she received thanks to their love and support. The mechanisms of behavioral epigenetics underlie not only deficits and weaknesses but strengths and resiliencies, too.”

Whether or not the misdirected, yet great, psychological benefit to bullying is inherited, says Gary Ladd, a professor of psychology at Arizona State, bullies feel a powerful surge when they’re in control. “They've picked a little microcosm in which to exert [dominance and] control.” It’s a hell of a dysfunctional methodology just to get one’s way.

Epigenetics can be influenced and reversed. The opportunities to optimally arrange, while turning off and on, 20,000+ genes are staggering!  If every single cause and effect of the different combinations could be mapped, and a gene’s state could be reversed to keep the good while eliminating the bad… then we could theoretically cure cancer, slow aging, stop obesity, end workplace bullying, and so much more.

DP: So, in conclusion, how can you tie all this together?

MP: The work body, or organization, can be analogous to the human body.  If a person or group or behavior or transaction or dynamic in an organization is destructive, as is the case with bullying, and it goes unaddressed, it can lead to great unhappiness, paralysis, and to the demise of the organization.  It’s similar to a human body riddled with a destructive disease.  A person’s pain and suffering soars until the problem is addressed.  We have the choice to make decisions impacting the health and happiness of our bodies and organizations.  It’s hoped this article helps you decide to thrive.

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