Recently, I read and summarized the book, Bad Leadership, by Barbara Kellerman, for the Actionable Book Club. It’s certainly not a pleasant experience to dwell on the dark side of life; in most situations, we tend to think it’s better to talk about the positive examples. Kellerman’s book gives clear examples of what bad leadership looks like and where it can take an organization. At best, bad leadership results in inertia. At worst, complete disaster for an organization, with ripple effects of destroyed lives and careers.
Michael Shoop, management consultant and a former government colleague, has a strong interest in understanding toxic work environments. He and I have had a few occasions over the years to discuss the damaging effects of bad leadership, and the pain and destruction a toxic personality can cause within an organization. Recently, I mentioned to him that I was reading Kellerman’s Bad Leadership book. After some discussion, Shoop and I agreed that while Kellerman’s book was useful, it leaves one wondering about what to do about it. As Shoop so colourfully puts it “It’s good, but it doesn’t help you find a way out of the swamp!”.
Shoop is always so generous with sharing his thoughts and answering my questions. I had a hunch that a vast majority of people have experienced a toxic work environment and Shoop confirmed this. His friend and colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Holloway, and her colleague Dr. Mitch Kusy, have done extensive and detailed empirical research in the public, private and not‐for‐profit sectors regarding the effects of toxic personalities in the workplace. Their research indicates that 64% of the respondents were currently working with a toxic personality and 94% have worked with someone toxic at some point in their career. (Check out their book, Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and their Systems of Power)
Shoop warns: “So often we don’t think about the full cost of these folks, and how they cause people to disengage, underperform, and do stupid things. The amount of time consumed by managing around this crap – it’s not worth it; it’s costing organizations way too much.”
Think about that statement. It’s distressing enough to acknowledge the personal costs of working with a toxic person: the misery of going to work, the stress that you carry home, the push to seek employment elsewhere. It’s an alarming prospect to consider the cost to an organization, and any other organizations that are under their influence: the work that doesn’t get done, the relationships that are damaged, the inefficient workarounds and accountability systems, the high degree of dysfunction, the disengaged workforce and limited/destroyed careers. The organizational entropy that is generated can be astounding.
The powerful work offered by the Barrett Values Centre can reveal the measure of entropy within an organization – and it’s sobering. Bad leaders can bring a high level of entropy to an organization. As Richard Barrett writes, “When the degree of dysfunction or disorder in an organisation is high, due to factors such as excessive control, caution, confusion, bureaucracy, hierarchy, internal competition, blame, silo mentality, etc., the amount of energy employees have to expend in getting their jobs done increases.”
And as Shoop pointed out to me, the big issue with toxic leaders is that they tend to thrive in hierarchical organization. Considering the traditional hierarchical, command-and-control environment of governments, this should be a sobering revelation for taxpayers.
And like most thorny problems, there’s nothing quick and easy about the resolution. Research by Holloway and Kusy reveals that’s because toxic personalities are part of a complex system. And the complex system is in fact the source of the toxic individual’s power. Therefore, a solid grounding in systems dynamics is required to combat the toxic individual’s hold on the organization. They assert that it isn’t always easy to identify toxic individuals because some toxic behaviours, even highly damaging ones, can be subtle and insidious.
Intentional leadership work in cultivating a values-based culture has been proven effective: sustained culture work can result in a high performing organization with fully engaged, productive workers. That’s certainly a big piece of resolving the problem. Reconsideration of hiring practices is another. Shoop says the research is conclusive: “All things being equal, take the person with the highest EQ and capacity for interaction with human beings, over the ones who are simply smart cognitively”. It may sound counter-intuitive. Traditional organizations have long-valued “hard skills” over “soft skills” and can have very rigid thinking about roles, functions and skills.
Shoop then informed me that the military has recognized the destructive effects of their bad leaders. The military, certainly the world’s most entrenched “command-and-control” culture, recognizes that toxic leadership can have life or death consequences. As evidence of one potential outcome, a U.S. Army investigation into causes of suicides by military personnel revealed that “[S]uicidal behavior can be triggered by …a toxic command climate”. Not surprisingly, aggressive steps have been taken to root out the bad leaders and develop good leaders.
U.S. Army Field Manual 6-22 offers this comprehensive definition of toxic leadership:
“Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects. The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term, but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops. Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers’ will, initiative, and potential and destroys unit morale.”
And an article on the US Army website quotes Dr George Reed, dean of the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado: “Having a toxic boss results in a 48 percent decrease in work effort and 38 percent decrease in work quality”.
I am heartened to hear how seriously the military is taking this issue, and to see research and public discussion shining a light on the impacts of toxic leadership.
Shoop’s cheerful take on the value of examining this issue: “Just knowing about the notion of incivility, toxicity and organizationally evil people, can provide some strength regarding whether and how to deal with it”. Fortitude and strategy.
Happily, awareness of bad leadership can only drive the promotion and development of good leadership.
Shadow informs light.