How do Toxic Leaders Become Supervisors in the First Place?

In my last post, I described the five dimensions of toxic leadership. Many people are shocked that their toxic bosses ever got promoted in the first place. In my research and practice, I have found some common reasons behind a toxic leader's rise to power:

1. Promoting Technical Expertise: Leading is different than doing. Many toxic leaders were actually quite good at their jobs before they got promoted. As individual contributors, they were experts. But companies often lack creativity when it comes to rewarding staff. Instead, they rely on promotions and titles to show appreciation. Many toxic leaders never wanted to manage employees, but realized becoming a supervisor was the only way to advance their careers.

Think about the repercussions: you take these technical experts who love their jobs, then make them supervisors who have to deal with administrative management. They can’t do the hands-on work anymore, either because someone else has been appointed to do it, or because the leaders simply don’t have the time, or both.

Now they have to oversee whole teams of people, including some employees that will never be as good at the job as the leaders once were. The leaders, who were high performers, can’t understand why some employees struggle. They decide the best way to “lead” is to micromanage. This technique compensates for some employees who are just average performers (or worse), and it allows the leaders a few minutes each week to do the hands-on work they once loved.

The leaders may not be happy in their new role but can’t go back to being individual contributors because that would be a backward career move. They take out their frustration on the team using toxic behaviors.

2. Rewarding Tenure: Similar to the situation above, many companies reward tenure rather than supervisory capability. Sometimes, the leaders weren’t even technical experts when they were individual contributors; they just stuck around long enough to get promoted. Lacking expert prowess can make things even worse because the leaders can’t use their expertise as an excuse for toxic behaviors.

3. Leading by Numbers: Some organizations focus solely on results and don’t pay attention to how the work gets done. Toxic leaders are often high performers, especially in the short-term. By using fear, humiliation, intimidation, and other behaviors in my Toxic Leadership Scale [1,2], these toxic leaders motivate their employees to perform.

If senior executives are simply reviewing sales numbers, hours billed, or other “hard” metrics, they might only see a team with stellar results. Unless companies also pay attention to things like employee engagement, attrition and retention, and team climate, they might completely miss the destructive impact of a toxic leader.

4. “Lighting a Fire”: Some companies know they have toxic leaders in their ranks, and use them to play the political game of corporate chess. Sometimes, these toxic leaders are brought in as ringers to “light a fire” under struggling teams. Often, this done to deliver short-term results and send a message to the rest of the organization.

I spoke to one corporate executive who said he liked to have “a few pit bulls in the ranks.” He meant that he liked having some toxic leaders with a reputation for furious action that delivered results. He used these leaders as floating drill sergeants, and whenever one team began struggling, he would send in the “pit bulls” to sort things out. He believed this tactic made other corporate leaders more effective because they would work hard not to be associated with (or replaced by) the pit bulls.

5. Creating Scapegoats: I spoke with another executive who used toxic leaders for high-risk projects. She believed it was win-win: either the toxic leader delivered and the company succeeded with the project, or the toxic leader failed and the company blamed him rather than accepting responsibility for a risky play. But when I asked her about the team members who had to deal with the toxic leader, she told me, “Yeah, we haven’t figured that part out yet. We’ve lost some good people.”

I believe there are much better ways to reward technical experts, motivate struggling teams, and launch high-risk projects than the methods described above. In my next post, I’ll describe how toxic leaders survive even when organizations know about their harmful behaviors. I'll then write about actions employees can take when they report to toxic leaders. 


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