Abusive leadership can be morally and ethically detrimental to organizations and their employees. A 2017 paper “Abusive Supervision and Employee Deviance: A Multifoci Justice Perspective,” published in the Journal of Business Ethics, shows that no one, not even the toxic boss, benefits from this approach. The research, which was based on a meta-analysis of 79 independent research studies involving over 22,000 individuals, found that when employees deal with abusive supervisors, they retaliate against their boss and their organization. Typical examples of acting out include showing up late or choosing not to work as hard. This can contribute to underperformance of the organization and elevated stress for everyone.
The paper also reveals that employees led by toxic individuals tend to emulate abusive behaviour in their interactions with their colleagues and are more likely to bully their coworkers. It is a learned social response and the ultimate negative example of paying it forward.
Does anyone benefit from this style of leadership?
If toxic behaviour has such a negative impact on organizations and the people within them, why does it continue? University of Notre Dame Professor Dr. Charlice Hurst and her colleagues provide a disturbing answer.
Their 2017 paper “Are ‘Bad’ Employees Happier under Bad Bosses? Differing Effects of Abusive Supervision on Low and High Primary Psychopathy Employees” reveals that psychopaths can flourish while working for a toxic boss. Since these individuals are relatively devoid of empathy, they are not bothered by the destructive interpersonal conduct of their supervisors. What’s worse, their research suggests that psychopaths feel less angry and report higher levels of engagement despite working under abusive conditions.
The authors note several chilling implications. First, thriving under a toxic boss may encourage psychopathic behaviour within the organization, as such behaviour gives a competitive advantage to the less principled. This may create pockets of psychopathy, drawing in like-minded individuals who enjoy working in that type of environment.
Second, the widespread use of employee engagement as a success metric within organizations can be problematic, as high engagement does not necessarily indicate a positive work environment. As Hurst et al.’s paper demonstrates, high engagement can be reported in toxic work environments because psychopaths are not bothered by the toxic conduct of their leaders.
What can we do?
Four evidence-informed recommendations spring from these studies:
1.CLEARLY DEFINE ACCEPTABLE AND UNACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOUR
Many organizations proudly declare their core values of respect and integrity, yet rarely define concretely what that means. Consult widely across the organization to create these definitions. An external evaluator should be able to walk in and easily determine the degree to which your organization is living its core values.
2. TAKE ACTION WHEN UNCIVIL CONDUCT OCCURS
As a consultant, when I am working on building a positive and respectful workplace I often use my Workplace Civility Assessment to identify problem areas. When I ask employees the best way to create a healthy work environment, their top recommendation is for their leaders to take immediate action when disrespectful actions occur. Otherwise, it sends a very strong message that these negative behaviours are tolerated and condoned by the organization.
3. PROVIDE TRAINING AND COACHING ON HOW TO CONFRONT ABUSIVE BEHAVIOUR
When I deliver respectful workplace seminars, I ask people why they do not speak up when disrespectful behaviours occur. A common response that I get from individuals is that they were shocked and did not know how to respond in the moment out of fear of escalation, etc. Providing group training and/or one-on-one coaching on how to deal with these situations is critical.
4. DO NOT RELY ONLY ON EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT DATA TO DETERMINE WHETHER YOU HAVE A HEALTHY WORKPLACE
Dr. Hurst astutely highlights that exclusively relying on employee engagement data may make senior leaders blind to the sickness within their organization. She suggests including other powerful metrics, such as turnover, to identify potential problem areas. If turnover is high in a particular division, even though engagement scores are high, this may indicate a problem situation.
Scientific and anecdotal evidence highlights the detrimental effects of toxic leaders. Not only do these individuals cause problems for their employees, but their negative actions infect others around them.
However, all is not lost. Organizations can take positive and proactive steps to counteract these forces. Carefully defining acceptable conduct and supporting individuals in exhibiting positive behaviours creates a culture and climate in which people and organizations can thrive.