Dishonesty, disagreeableness, and carelessness are not traits you want in a boss, but a collection of research published in Frontiers in Psychology finds that employees can enable these three “nightmare traits” in a boss and make them worse. If the employee has anxiety or low self-esteem, or if they ignore bad leadership behavior, the combination of leader and follower can be lethal.
“Dark” leaders alone cannot achieve toxic results, says professor and research co-editor Barbara Wisse of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and the University of Durham in the U.K. “Their destructiveness is often furthered by the voluntary or involuntary assistance of susceptible followers and conducive environments,” she says. “We need to know more about the interplay between leaders, followers, and context in order to understand when and why leaders act or refrain from acting destructively.”
Wisse and her co-researchers found the degree to which psychopathic traits of leaders are reflected in their behavior depends on the characteristics of their employees. For example, narcissistic leaders were rated as more abusive by employees with low self-esteem, which related to lower employee performance and the experience of burnout symptoms. If followers had higher self-esteem, however, leaders with psychopathic traits behaved less self-servingly.
Why leaders get a pass
Leadership is often viewed as the most important factor for the success or failure of a company, a tendency labeled “the romance of leadership,” says Wisse. But she says the influence of leadership is often overemphasized. “Particularly in cases of outstanding success or failure, people tend to overestimate the role of the leader and neglect other stakeholders or external circumstances.”
Leaders are often put on a pedestal as employees may think they’re smarter or more skilled, adds Jennifer A. Griffith, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of New Hampshire. “When we see a leader engaging in or avoiding certain kinds of behavior, we take this as a cue of which behavior is acceptable and may be rewarded,” she says. “As a result, followers may be incentivized to model the behaviors of a toxic leader, creating a widespread toxic environment.”
What companies can do about bad bosses
Followers may assume they have less control over their environment, but this thinking undercuts the monumental role they play in propagating a leader’s core vision, implementing a leader’s strategy, and translating a leader’s behavior into organizational culture, says Griffith. “In fact, we do see examples of what happens when a small number of employees do not engage in toxic or unethical behaviors as anticipated or expected—such as Wells Fargo—the broader organization is often called upon to rethink their policies,” she says.
Organizations and employers should hold destructive or self-serving leaders accountable for their actions, says Wisse. “It has been suggested that accountability, a lack of ambiguity, and a clear set of values and norms may mitigate the negative impact of psychopaths in the workplace,” she says.
Another approach could be to identify individuals with dark-side traits before they enter an organization through personality testing. The “three nightmare traits” can be aligned with specific profiles, Wisse says.
And re-evaluate how you select internal leadership candidates, says Griffith. “The internal promotion processes may inadvertently be promoting employees who are exceptionally skilled at manipulating individuals or circumstances such that they are presented in the best possible light at the expense of others,” she says.
What employees can do
Be mindful of your own behavior, says Bill Treasurer, author of The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance. “Show me a bad leader, and I’ll show you followers who enabled the bad leaders’ behavior,” he says. “The potential for bad leadership behavior is heightened to the extent that followers provide the leader with adoration. Arrogance is the single most lethal leader characteristic. But arrogance doesn’t develop in a vacuum. It is fed, often by sycophants and suck-ups who keep giving the leader deference and adulation, confirming for the arrogant leader his or her specialness.”
Employees can visit outlets like Glassdoor, Indeed and Owler where they can rate the CEO and company culture, says Laura Handrick, career and workplace analyst for FitSmallBusiness.com. “That makes the bad behavior public and hard to ignore,” she says.
Her advice is to try to outlast the bad boss. “Bad bosses always get exposed,” she says. “If you have an HR department or feel comfortable taking your concerns to your bosses’ boss, do so respectfully. Share how the boss’s dark side is damaging the company, hurting clients, violating policy or values, or affecting your ability to be productive. It may take many voices and examples for them to take notice, but eventually they will see a pattern. ”
But don’t get caught up in the toxicity, says Jill Gugino Pante, director of Lerner Career Services Center at the University of Delaware. “It’s easy to react with negativity when negativity is thrown at you on a daily basis,” she says. “Feeding that negativity in yourself will result in burnout and personal struggles.”
Constant complaining will add fuel to disgruntled employees who are already fired up. “The dark-side leadership may continue to react to this negativity, and reason to themselves that their employees are the problem and not them,” says Gugino Pante. “Take accountability of your own actions, and again, find that positive outlet in the organization.”
“I’m not a fan of blaming employees for bad bosses; no employee behavior deserves an abusive supervisor,” says Ravi Gajendran, assistant professor in the Department of Global Leadership and Management at Florida International University. “Bad bosses are a reality. If it’s the boss and not the context that is driving bad behavior, escape if you can and find another role or another job. If you are stuck with your boss, try to find things outside of the job that act as an emotional buffer at work.”