Written by: Stephanie Wimmer
Research suggests that more and more employees are working with toxic leadership in the workplace which has been shown to cause dysfunctional behaviors in the organization, a lack of employee commitment to the organization, and an overall loss of job satisfaction. So what is toxic leadership and what makes someone a toxic leader? The term “Toxic Leadership” was first used by M.G. Whicker in the book ‘Toxic Leaders: When Organizations Go Bad” (Watt, 2016). This type of leadership is defined by the behaviors exhibited within an organization. A toxic leader is not just the typical bad boss who might have a bad attitude or may lack the knowledge or experience to be in a leadership position, but rather a person whose behavior is intentionally destructive and has serious effects on those they lead.
Over the past few years, a number of research articles have focused on a type of destructive leadership called “toxic leadership” (Goldman, 2006; Boddy, 2014; Boddy, 2015; Gallos, 2008; Goldman, 2006; Lipman-Blumen, 2005; Walton, 2011). These articles describe the destructive effects of toxic leadership in a wide range of organizations. For example, authors have suggested that toxic leadership might impair the physical and mental health of employees, invoke dysfunctional group behavior, and may increase absenteeism and employee withdrawal.
A toxic leader is one who uses the power their position awards them to control and manipulate by any means to further their career or to bring more power to themselves and do this without any regard to the individuals that are beneath them. Aggressive tactics such a bullying, threats, and manipulation along with passive tactics such as withholding relevant information or providing incorrect information purposefully are just a few of the ways a toxic leader operates. Toxic leaders have been described by their employees as bullies, narcissists, and even as psychopaths, which any of these personality types can be detrimental to the environment and productivity of the organization. One study (Armitage, 2015) suggests that three in every ten persons in a leadership position could be considered to be a toxic leader. With numbers this high, one could see how this type of epidemic in the workplace could be cause for concern.
According to a study on toxic leadership and how it affected healthcare workers (Ozer, 2017), there are four categories that the behaviors of toxic leaders fall. They are Inapprecitiveness, which includes such behaviors as humiliating employees in front of and behind the employee’s backs, does not value the employee, does not listen, and unsympathetically reminds the employee of past mistakes. Next, is Selfishness, which includes such behaviors as blaming the employee for his or her failures, takes credit for things only when they have gone well, places personal interests ahead of everyone else, and only cares about how they look to superiors. Selfishness is another category that consists of behaviors such as the belief that they deserve the position they are in (or one even higher), the belief that they are more talented, excellent, and deserving than anyone else, and that the organization will only do well if they are in charge. Lastly is a negative spiritual state which consists of behaviors such as if they are in a negative mood it affects the climate of the workplace and the employee’s act according to the negative mood of the leader.
There is a synergetic relationship between the toxic workplace and the toxic leaders who occupy them. As an employee and employer, we tend to follow the natural order in the workplace. There are employees and leaders and the employee naturally looks to the leader for information, training, mentoring, and advice concerning their position within the organization. When there is a toxic leader involved in that natural order, it can cause dysfunction within the organization. As we think about the way an organization functions, it might help to visualize a wheel with many spokes. Each spoke represents a functional area of the organization. When a toxic leader is in control, the spokes of the wheel start to disconnect and break, which causes dysfunction not only to the spoke but the entire organization as a whole. Therefore, the consequences of a toxic leaders’ behavior on the organization are vast. Research has shown that workplace deviance by subordinates who work for toxic leaders has increased (Pelletier, 2010). Employees tend to show counterproductive behavior and even retaliatory behavior in order to try and balance out the perceived scale of injustice. Negative behavior is disadvantageous for any organization and the trickle-down effect causes more dysfunction within the organization.
As an example of a toxic leaders behavior, let us suppose that the leader of an organization while giving an employee a task to do, did not give the employee pertinent information to carry out that task. Consequently, that task is going will be incorrect. The toxic leader can use this to their advantage in many ways, such as pointing out the inferior work of the employee to superiors or coming to the rescue and “fixing” the employee’s mistakes in front of superiors, thus taking credit and making themselves look admirable in the eyes of others. These types of behavior can cause a myriad of dysfunction in the workplace. The employee spends time working on something that no matter how he or she does it, it will be incorrect. Superiors see the employee as incompetent or lazy. And, the employee could either retaliate or have a “why bother” attitude toward the leader and the organization. With just this one example, one broken spoke on the organization wheel; it is clear that more than just the employee is affected by a toxic leader.
The dysfunction caused by toxic leadership can also lead to a lack of commitment to the employer and the organization. How can an employee commit to an organization that has a leader that bullies, threatens, or interferes with their ability to do a job? Studies have shown that a very large number of employees prefer to leave an organization rather than endure a toxic leader (Thoroughgood, 2012). An employee who is a victim of a toxic leader would have a lack of trust in the organization which would make it more untroublesome to move on.
One experimental study (Boddy, 2011) showed that in reaction to a toxic leaders behavior and the absence of commitment, employees would engage in counterproductive work behavior that they normally would not have engaged in otherwise. Employees interviewed in the survey admitted to deviant behavior against the organization and not just the toxic leader. Purposely doing work incorrectly or slowly, not following instructions, wasting the employer’s materials or supplies, and even damaging equipment or property are some of the ways the employees took out their frustration and lack of commitment towards the organization. Another study (Goldman, 2008) showed that an employee could have a reduction in loyalty towards an organization just by witnessing toxic behavior directed at another employee. An example of this sort of behavior could be one employee overhearing a toxic leader divulging private or personal information about one employee to another or even speaking badly about an employee behind their back while acting pleasant to their face. This kind of behavior can make an employee think that if the toxic leader could do this to one employee, it could be done to them as well. Not only is there a lack of faith in the toxic leader but also in an organization that would allow one of its leaders to behave in this manner. When an organization condones this type of behavior, directly or indirectly, it sets a workplace culture that this type of behavior is acceptable. Asking an employee to put their faith, trust, and commitment into an organization that permits one of its leaders to disrespect their privacy seems unthinkable. Once an employee no longer feels a commitment to the organization the easier it is for them to be able to move on to another organization, thus the higher turn-over rate for an organization with a toxic leader.
When leadership becomes disengaged, unapproachable, dishonest, unsupportive and untrustworthy and the organization looks the other way it is defining the culture of the organization. This type of culture can make the organization just as dysfunctional and toxic as the leaders controlling it. Looking at the organization as you would a personal relationship, one can see why an individual would not want to commit to a toxic individual any more than they would want to commit to a toxic organization.
A lack of overall job satisfaction is another side effect of toxic leadership within the organization. As human beings we have deep-rooted psychological needs to be accepted and to feel like we make a difference. The turbulence caused by a toxic leader can undermine our feeling of importance. As stated by research (Lipman-Blumen, 2005) constantly being forced to confront fears and uncertainty in the work environment could be not only detrimental to the individual’s job performance and job satisfaction but to the individuals mental and physical health. This “sickness” can carry over and become contagious throughout the organization. Toxic leadership can lead to poor morale, decreased productivity, increased absenteeism and higher turnover rates. Employees feel cynical and frustrated, leading to decreased energy, enthusiasm, and self-esteem.
Leadership toxicity is an omnipresent aspect of many organizations, yet few organizations recognize it for what it is. Leadership toxicity seems to be an alluring part of the organizational atmosphere that undermines personal and organizational growth and performance. It could be described as a silent killer among organizations. It can consume individuals, groups, and organizations. Failure to recognize and take action can destroy the organization.
To conclude, toxic leadership is extremely dangerous not only to individuals that are affected by it but also to the vitality of the afflicted organization. Individuals having toxic behaviors and dysfunctional traits should not be allowed to lead an organization under any conditions. Toxic leadership and their behaviors will remain within the organizations unless steps are taken to stop it before it becomes an issue.