Most of us have either experienced or currently work with bosses who are incompetent, tyrannical or vindictive. You may have asked yourself how someone so incompetent ended up in a position of power. Or you may wonder why everyone seems to put up with the tyranny of a volatile and domineering person at the helm. Let’s take a closer look at what constitutes a bad leader, why bad leaders are promoted and how they gain followers. Then let’s think of what can be done about it.
What are the characteristics of bad leadership?
According to Barbara Kellerman’s leadership research[i], the characteristics of a bad leader are:
- Uncontrolled, volatile behaviour
- Callousness towards others
- Insular behaviour
- Evil, destructive actions intended to harm or destroy
Bad leaders are discriminatory, aggressive and arrogant. They build a world around a self-centered idea of personal greatness that gives them personal license to break, bend and alter moral standards others while holding others to them. By placing themselves on a pedestal above the law, above authority and even above God, bad leaders construct an insular bubble where they must always be right and anyone who suggests otherwise is mercilessly struck down.
This portrait of bad leadership was first described as “toxic” by Jean Lipman-Blumen in her book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders[ii] where she showed how toxic leaders inflicted “serious and enduring harm” on followers, organizations and others in their personal lives. The bad leader’s tendency to willful unethical behaviour and self-justification mechanisms is described by Terry Price in the book, Understanding Ethical Failures in Leadership[iii]
According to US Army research[iv], toxic leaders control their environments to be supremely beneficial to themselves at the expense of all others.
- Workload to set people up to fail, then use the failure as an excuse to bully.
- Corporate control systems to monitorthe movements of others and discipline them at the first sign of threat to their control.
- Abuse of organizational structuresto interfere with workflow and interpersonal relationships.
- Symbols of personal powerto who others they are superior and deserving of extra privilege. For example they take the best of everything and have their own private everything.
- Over control of all workplace routines and ritualssuch as calling too many meetings, demanding unnecessary reports, interfering with people’s work, calling for disciplinary hearings, threats of legal action and consistent undermining of employees to instill a culture of fear of reprisal and isolation.
You may be wondering why people get so profoundly corrupted in their sense of self and desire to control their environments. For more indepth consideration of this question, read the book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work by Paul Babiuk, and No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, by Robert Sutton.
According to Robert Sutton, the way you can recognize the “Asshole at work” is by watching for these red flags:
- Personal insults
- Invading one’s “personal territory”
- Uninvited physical contact
- Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
- “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
- Withering e-mail flames
- Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
- Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
- Rude interruptions
- Two-faced attacks
- Dirty looks
- Treating people as if they are invisible
The good news is that not every person in a leadership position is a manipulative ego driven bully. The majority of people who have been subjected to grinding poverty, torture and abuse do not develop these kinds of toxic traits as a general rule. Human nature tends to be social and the mind works to eliminate discomfort, dissonance and chaos. Without this kind of an environment, we simply cannot survive as a species. For survival conditions to be optimal, most of our social interactions need to be centered in a balance between getting our own needs met and helping others meet theirs. We generally learn to work together and to meet common goals, to invent, problem solve and collaborate, and most of this is done in fairly low conflict ways. Yet when confronted with toxic leadership, the more pressing question is why do we put up with it? After all, you can’t have a leader without a follower, and it takes a group of followers to keep a leader in his or her place.
Who supports these toxic people and why?
Psychologist Robert Riggio[v] explains that as social animals, we can easily fall into dominance hierarchies where we are prone to follow the leader with the highest push to control. We then tend to regulate our behaviour in consequence. This is fundamentally a desire for protection. We so desperately want our leaders to protect us that we are willing to believe they are doing so in the face of evidence to the contrary. Even smart people need validation and seek approval from authority figures. Surprisingly in fact, the smarter people are, the more likely they are to fall for bad leadership.[vi] Smart people believe their cognitive prowess will protect them from being manipulated emotionally, which makes them all the more vulnerable to bad leadership influence.
Then there is the social validation phenomenon so widely talked about in social media circles. When a group of people goes along with someone’s leadership, it is much harder to question that leadership without being excluded by the group. The desire to belong can be stronger than the desire to do what is right. Finding the moral strength to stop something that is obviously harmful, speaking “truth to power” as they say, can have devastating personal consequences. We all know what happens to that lone voice standing up against the tyrant – the lone voice is crushed while others stand around passively, silently hoping they will not be singled out as the next victim.
Finally people follow bad leaders because they seek to divert attention away from personal mediocre performance or “less than squeaky-clean” actions. Mediocrity breeds more mediocrity and poor leadership hires for poor performance or blind loyalty to keep the air pumped into their overinflated egos.
According to Michael Maccoby[vii], this stems from a tendency to transfer our desire for strong father figures, nurturing mother figures and protective siblings onto our workplace relationships. Those missing a strong father figure are more likely to succumb to a toxic leader’s glamour of protective strength. If you long for a mother to support you and heal your scrapes and scratches, you may project a kind, helpful image onto a toxic female boss. People with unhappy sibling relationships can come under the influence of colleagues whom they over-idolize. Basically we can all be acting out of past family dysfunctions – but knowing that this kind of background influence is a possibility can help mitigate the likelihood of being deluded by it.
In short, the answer to who supports bad leaders is, unfortunately, you and me. We collectively, unconsciously agree to live in an inequitable relationship for all of the reasons above. In social theory this is the contract of the oppressor with an oppressed people. You don’t need an army to reinforce your dominance if you only choose your words to create a hierarchy to your advantage and the disadvantage of others. If you tell a child a few times he or she is an incompetent fool, the child is likely to believe it. If you tell that child about his or her incompetence in front of the group, the whole group will agree with you because you are the leader and you must know best. Exactly the same dynamic is reflected in toxic workplace hierarchies. But don’t worry, there is hope. You only need to read through the next section before we get to it!
Why are bad leaders promoted? How did they get to a position of influence?
Bad leaders are promoted in a mediocre organization that has created an environment to grow poor performance. John Grubbs describes the top 10 characteristics of a mediocre organization in one of his excellent posts[viii]. From his list, the trend that most closely applies to why bad leaders are promoted in the context we are currently examining, is trend number two: Failure to turn over key leadership positions. Grubbs explains that leadership that has been in place too long is comfortable with status quo, complacent and entitled. Without the constant tension equating position and status with high performance, leadership stagnates and begins to promote mediocre “buddies” in a safe little club of mediocrity.
Then there is the “Peter principle” which states that in a hierarchy employees are promoted to the highest level of incompetence. We may laugh about this, but there is some interesting research that explains why it happens. A famous study by three Italian researchers[ix] (Pluchino, Rapisardo and Garofalo), showed that promoting competent employees resulted in less efficient organizations. The reason for this is because competent employees do not necessarily make good managers. And organizations tend to promote people at their current level of skill instead of looking for the skill the organization requires at the new level. Then if this is followed up with little or inadequate leadership training, bad habits develop and are fossilized.
Part and parcel of this phenomenon is that people in positions of leadership do not know the difference between leadership and management. Management strives to keep things the same and get the job done with a minimum of interference. Leadership questions the way things are done and will stop work to get to the root problem. Good leadership knows how and when to apply management principles and when to stick out and be provocative.
Vanessa Edmonds of RIM Solutions[x], says bosses promote bullies unknowingly because they support people who “don’t complain” (bullies are too busy persecuting others behind the scenes to complain to the boss) and who “appear loyal” (bullies know just when to kiss up to the boss when the boss’s ego appears fragile).
Employees, HR departments and even upper level management become increasingly scared of bully personalities because it is so hard to confront them without being stung. In this way bad leaders are as a default “transferred” across departments or “promoted” to positions where they will have less direct daily interaction with the current team. Free of the bad leader’s toxic influence yet unencumbered by the possibility of reprisal, the team most recently under attack to get back to their jobs.
Combine poor promotional choices and fear of confrontation of aggressive people and you have a toxic cocktail. The remaining ingredients for this poisonous drink are: general lack of trust, no acknowledgement of good work or strong positive leadership emerging naturally in the organization, lack of transparency, little or no encouragement for employees to think, question or suggest and punishment of anyone who makes a difference or an improvement and voila! You have a company culture to grow incompetent, nasty people who spend more time watching their backs and scheming than promoting the company products and services.
So enough with the depressing social structures based on instinct. We are bigger than our instincts, we have minds, hearts and spirits. Let’s do something about this problem.
What can we do about bad leadership?
The first step is to be aware of our likely blind spots. All of the previous information is in the service of that goal. My favourite book about promoting a civil workplace and decreasing the influence of bad leadership is a book that was written to explain who succeeds against the odds: givers, matchers or takers. Give and Take, by Adam Grant provides massive evidence that the largest number of people who succeed in the long run are givers. With examples of how to tell a giver from a taker or a matcher, and how to adjust your behaviour to “speak their language”, Grant shows how to work with a variety of people and improve outcomes, even in difficult or almost impossible circumstances. Although people may have less than stellar results in the beginning by being generous, recognizing talent and giving back to the community, over both the intermediate and the long term, givers have the biggest gains. In terms of loyal followers who love to promote them, a solid professional network, sustained performance and financial returns, happy interpersonal relationships and good health, the givers win out every time.
To turn bad leadership out on its ear, think about reversing the negative social structure around you by building strong giver relationships with your colleagues, supply chain, and everyone you meet. An excellent example was provided to me by a friend whose toxic boss had almost decimated the entire organization. With only two allies, my friend and her “team” went to work in secret, stealthily promoting healthy, generous relationships in the form of a “virtuous counter-attack” strategy. They put kind notes in people’s mailboxes, left gifts on their desks, relentlessly talked up the qualities and strengths of their colleagues, asked to take over some of their unpleasant tasks, gave them referrals, took them out for coffee, and told others how proud they were to be working with such an incredible workforce. Surprisingly they felt so energized by this campaign that they looked forward to coming to work every day!
Within a few short weeks at a general meeting where the toxic boss tried her usual tricks to undermine and bully others, the group spontaneously broke into gregarious, supportive banter, shutting down her negative comments at every turn so she was unable to chair the meeting. One month later she left the organization, unable to continue her rein of terror and frustrated by the positive environment around her.
You may be skeptical of this approach, and rightly so. Building a healthy workplace climate has to be balanced with a second kind of courage – stopping the guy with the gun. One cannot approach toxic people without expecting them to bite. Standing up to bullies and letting them know you will not put up with their bad treatment of you is the perfect compliment to the building of a functional and encouraging workplace climate. Believe you are worthy of being treated with respect. Then build up your allies to jointly and collectively refuse to be treated poorly, to say no to unsafe work and to be a wall of resistance when faced with toxic behaviour. It takes a collectiveeffort to do this however. In the company of others with positive intent you are a powerful force. Remember that the reason bad leaders have power is because you and I are letting them do it. No wars are fought without an army. Don’t succumb to your instinct to hide and deflect blame – think of ways you and your allies can become a moral force. And combine this with active cultivation of friendship and respect on various levels of leadership in the organization so you don’t foster an “us against them” mentality. Then strategize and train yourself for this kind of fitness.
Finally, when in doubt, be the one to stand up and do the right thing. One of my sons took the courageous step of putting himself between a group of bully teens and a child they were trying to beat up at a very busy bus terminal. The bullies started to close in on my son and menace him, but he stood firm. Then suddenly they all looked scared and ran off. When my son looked behind him the entire population of the bus terminal had come to stand behind him. They too were worried about the child who was in danger. But it took one courageous person to stand up to the problem for them to find their courage and stand behind him.
It takes a conscious effort to find the good in an organization, to look for allies, to build functional social networks and quality workplace behaviours. You will experience resistance and difficulties. But in the end you will win. Look for the many examples of collective positive action in your community, in business and in your interpersonal connections. Keep these images in your mind and reinforce them with the knowledge – the empirical and scientifically validated fact – that the givers win. Maybe it will take some time. You will need perseverance. You may even go to a new organization where your likelihood of success is improved before you see the actual results. But win you will. We are not lemmings who are forced by instinct to leap off cliffs to their death. We are thinking and feeling people who can do great things. Good leadership is the antidote for bad. But we have to be willing to practice it ourselves.
“You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.” Epicurus[xi]
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[iv] A study for the Center for Army Leadership (http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/CAL/).
[v] Ronald Riggio, Psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201104/why-the-world-tolerates-corrupt-and-dangerous-leaders.
[vi] Scott Berkun http://scottberkun.com/essays/40-why-smart-people-defend-bad-ideas/
[viii] Grubbs, John. The fatal 10 powerful trends in mediocre organizations. http://www.evancarmichael.com/Leadership/5147/The-Fatal-10–Powerful-Trends-in-Mediocre-Organizations.html
[ix] Alessandro Pluchino; Andrea Rapisarda; Cesare Garofalo (2009). “The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study”. Physica A 389(3): 467–472.
[x] Surprising reasons bosses keep office bullies around. BBC Capital.http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20150108-why-bosses-keep-bullies-around
[xi] Inspirational quotes about overcoming adversity at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/adversity.html#VkTitvDed3bieWxL.99