Often, when we hear the word “bully,” we immediately think of the terrible problem that schools face when students verbally, physically, and otherwise abuse fellow students. And, we are all too familiar of the awful consequences that occur when those bullied students strike back.
Unfortunately, though, other organizations, as well, may be full of bullies. What is often referred to as “incivility in the workplace,” employees at all levels may experience or witness behavior that is demeaning, demoralizing, disparaging, depressing, and physically damaging in its effect. One study done by the Workplace Bullying Institute in 2010 found that 35 percent of the American workforce (or 53.5 million people) have directly experienced bullying, or “repeated mistreatment by one or more employees that takes the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation or sabotage of work performance,” while another 15 percent said they have witnessed bullying at work (Business.com).
Too, too often, these types of behaviors emanate from the very people who are responsible for the health and success of their organizations—the LEADERS.
It’s called “toxic leadership” and it harms co-workers. Toxic leadership is unethical. In principle, it just plain wrong. It violates every belief, every attitude, every value of those of us who hold dear the practice of relational, transformational servant leadership.
Here are some of the behaviors exhibited by toxic leaders, according to Jean Lipman-Blumen, author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders:
- Undermine the dignity, self-worth and efficacy of others.
- Is a narcissist, bully and/or psychopath.
- Leave their followers and the organization worse off than when they found it.
- Consciously feeds their followers illusions and fantasy about a secret plan or mystical vision.
- Play to the basest fears and needs of the followers.
- Threaten or punish those who fail to comply with the leader or question the leader’s actions.
- Lie and are deceitful.
- Must win at all costs.
- Charm, cultivate and manipulate followers.
- Blame others for their mistakes or failures and frequently criticize others.
- Constantly seek and need praise.
- Has a sense of entitlement and believes they are “special”.
- Are utilitarian in the extreme—“the ends justify any means”.
- Lack empathy and compassion for others.
- Are super-sensitive to criticism and will seek vengeance against those who give it.
- Often exhibit mood swings and temper tantrums.
- Make many promises that never happen.
- Take credit for others’ work.
Any of these look familiar? Some studies suggest that between 20% and 56% of employees identify their leader as toxic, with up to 70% indicating the same in some public sector organizations (Natural-Talent.com).
Besides the devastating, personal impact toxic leadership has on employees, it can also significantly impact the “bottom line” of an organization as well.
Sadly, sometimes it takes more than the concerns of principle for those in positions of authority and power to right a terrible wrong. And that’s where the evidence of how toxic leadership diminishes organizational success can be used as an effective argument for stopping such lethal behavior.
Here’s some of that evidence:
A study by Dyck and Roithmayr (2001) compared companies with positive leadership and those with toxic leaders. They found that in companies with positive leadership Sales Growth was 16.1%, Profit Growth was 18.2%, and Profit Margin was 6.2%. Compare that to 7.4%, 4.4%, and 3.3%, respectively, in companies where leadership was toxic.
Other researchers estimate toxic leadership and disrespectful behavior costs companies $14,000 per employee due to lost productivity (Natural-Talent.com).
Besides these two examples, there are plenty of anecdotal statements by authors that toxic leadership affects the bottom line.
What to do about toxic leadership? Herein lies the big challenge. Many know from experience how difficult it is to deal with toxic leaders and attempt to eliminate or at least reduce the amount of toxic leadership in organizations today (and many authors agree). So there is no easy, quick fix–nor do I presume to offer one here.
From what I’ve read regarding such strategies, at least two themes emerge:
- Senior leaders (assuming they are not toxic) must create a culture in which acceptable leadership and employee behaviors are clearly articulated, discussed, and implemented–with accountability. This starts with the hiring/interviewing process and is continuously reinforced and restated among all members of the organization.
- Employees must have a risk-free process to report toxic leader behaviors to those who can intervene and take corrective action.
Unfortunately, there are too many organizations in which talented employees, who are the victims of toxic leaders, feel isolated and powerless to do anything about it. Consequently, when it becomes too much to handle, many take a walk, costing companies more money to replace those valuable human assets.
I trust that those who are in that situation will find some way and connect to someone with whom to begin the conversation about toxic leader behaviors and how it affects their performance, the health of themselves/co-workers/their organization, and how such negative, damaging behaviors impact the bottom line.
Dr. James Dittmar is the Founder, President, and CEO of the 3Rivers Leadership Institute which began in 2014. Prior to this Jim founded the award-winning Geneva College M.S. in Organizational Leadership Program in 1995 and served as Chair of the Department of Leadership Studies and Director of the M.S. in Organizational Leadership Program until 2015. Should you have any questions, comments or feedback, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org