Ignoring Bad Leadership May Be Risky Business — Here’s Why.

Bad leadership
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Key points

  • Bad or destructive leadership isn’t subtle; it can be readily identified if you know what to look for.
  • Bad leadership is associated with negative — and potentially costly — consequences for individuals and organizations.
  • To address bad leadership in your organization, consider taking a multifaceted approach that accounts for both organizational environment and individual factors.

Rather than being a theoretical issue or a rare occurrence, estimates suggest that bad leadership (also referred to as abusive supervision or destructive leadership) affects 10%-16% of US employees. This comes to an annual cost of close to $24 billion — when you account for costs related to healthcare, absenteeism, reduced productivity, etc. If you haven’t considered how the “dark side” of leadership may be affecting your employees and your organization, now might be the time to give it some thought. In this Evidence Summary, we review the latest research to explain why.

Investigating the links between destructive leaders and organizational outcomes

A meta-analysis by Birgit Schyns and Jan Schilling found clear relationships between destructive leadership and various individual and organizational outcomes. Because of the snapshot nature of the majority of the 57 studies included in the meta-analysis, (they were cross-sectional studies), we cannot say destructive leadership causes certain outcomes, but we can look to see if they are related. 

Before going deeper into the outcomes, though, let’s first take a closer look at what destructive leadership is.

What is (not) destructive leadership?

Before you can address the challenge of destructive leadership, it is important to understand what it is and what it is not. That can be a little tricky given that researchers have conceptualized “bad leadership” in a host of ways — such as petty tyranny, abusive supervision, as well as despotic and tyrannical leadership.

In their work, Schyns and Schilling argue that destructive leadership is different from non-leadership or ineffective leadership. By this definition, it seems possible that someone can be lousy at the job of leadership, without being a destructive leader. Destructive leadership should also not be confused with other forms of misbehavior (e.g., drinking at work) or having an occasional bad day when no one wants to be around you. Those are unfortunate, but not necessarily destructive leadership.

Rather, destructive leadership relates to a person’s abuse of formal power to achieve specific aims. This behavior occurs continuously over an extended period, and importantly, is perceived as hostile by those on the receiving end of the leader’s actions.  

bad leadership

Turning a blind eye to destructive leadership may be risky business

The strongest associations found by Schyns and Schilling were between perceptions of destructive leadership and negative attitudes towards the leader — no surprises there! However, the shadow cast by destructive leaders can be quite far-reaching, with potential negative influences on how people view their jobs and even on how they view the organization overall.

bad leadership

[Schyns and Schilling found several associations that were at least moderately strong, (i.e., they are likely to be noticeable to someone who is looking for them). These included: Increased perceptions of destructive leadership were associated with decreased job satisfaction, motivation and dedication, as well as reduced perceptions of organizational justice; increased perceptions of destructive leadership were also associated with increased turnover intention and counterproductive work behavior.]

A bad apple — or a systemic problem?

When faced with a destructive leader, your instinct may be to view that person as an anomaly — the so-called “bad apple”.  You may feel that firing or working with the individual to change the troublesome behaviors will solve the problem.

This may well be the case.

However, given that destructive leadership involves sustained, abusive behavior rather than a one-time event, it might be worth considering systemic factors that might allow such behaviors to take hold in an organization. Researchers offer two models that illustrate how this might happen.

Mary Mawritz and colleagues suggest there is a trickle-down nature to abusive leadership behavior — i.e., the bad behavior of a supervisor is related to the bad behavior of a manager, which is related to interpersonal issues in work groups.

In their toxic triangle model, Art Padilla and colleagues suggest that destructive leadership is not simply the work of particular individuals, but rather results from a complex mix of factors related to leaders, their followers, and the overall organizational environment.

Takeaways for your practice

Given that destructive leadership could impact your organization at some point, you may benefit from preparing for this challenge. To do so, you may want to:

  • Increase your awareness: Various studies indicate that people know destructive leadership when they experience it (see here and here.) Leadership assessments, performance appraisals, or general employee satisfaction surveys may be helpful to flag leaders that could benefit from follow-up related to their behaviors towards staff (see here and here).
  • Have a plan: Develop a clear response to destructive leadership when it is identified, focusing not only on the leader (e.g., coaching, training, development plans) but also supporting employees (see here).
  • Know thyself: Leaders should consider how their behavior and tactics may affect staff. (See here.) In addition, leadership teams may benefit from discussions of acceptable and unacceptable behavior — what types of behavior are you willing to tolerate amongst colleagues at the leadership level? Is this the type of behavior you would like imitated throughout the organization?
  • Consider your context: Addressing the behavior of the destructive leader is just a start. Consider the aspects of your organizational environment or culture that may enable or allow destructive leadership to take place, as suggested in the models referenced above.

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this article. We found that the design of the study was moderately appropriate (70% trustworthiness level) to demonstrate a causal relationship, such as effect or impact. This means that there is a 30% chance that alternative explanations for these results are possible, including random effects.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

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Mawritz, M. B., Mayer, D. M., Hoobler, J. M., Wayne, S. J., & Marinova, S. V. (2012). A trickle‐down model of abusive supervision. Personnel Psychology, 65(2), 325-357.

Mackey, J. D., Frieder, R. E., Brees, J. R., & Martinko, M. J. (2015). Abusive supervision: A meta-analysis and empirical review. Journal of Management, 0149206315573997.

Padilla, A., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(3), 176-194.

Schyns, B., & Schilling, J. (2013). How bad are the effects of bad leaders? A meta-analysis of destructive leadership and its outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly, 24(1), 138-158.

Tepper, B. J. (2000). Consequences of abusive supervision. Academy of management journal, 43(2), 178-190.

Tepper, B. J., Duffy, M. K., Henle, C. A., & Lambert, L. S. (2006). Procedural injustice, victim precipitation, and abusive supervision. Personnel Psychology, 59(1), 101-123.

Thoroughgood, C. N., Hunter, S. T., & Sawyer, K. B. (2011). Bad apples, bad barrels, and broken followers? An empirical examination of contextual influences on follower perceptions and reactions to aversive leadership. Journal of Business Ethics, 100(4), 647-672.

Thoroughgood, C. N., Tate, B. W., Sawyer, K. B., & Jacobs, R. (2012). Bad to the bone: Empirically defining and measuring destructive leader behavior. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 19(2), 230-255.

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  1. Pingback: Newsletter Superception #138 | Superception - Toute vérité n'est que perception - Truth Is Just Perception