What is a Toxic Leader?

Since 2006, I have interviewed hundreds of leaders and surveyed more than 6,000 employees about toxic leadership. Ultimately, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the topic. Many have asked about my findings, so I’m writing a series of short posts describing what I learned. I’ll start here by describing what toxic leadership is, then I’ll discuss why toxic leaders get promoted to begin with, why they survive in leadership roles, and what employees can do about their toxic bosses.

Since many articles use the term “toxic leadership” in different ways, I conducted a series of research studies to define the term, create a scale to measure it, and validate the scale. I’ll summarize here to save you 125 pages of reading, but if you’re interested in the details, you can review the full paper describing my development and validation of the Toxic Leadership Scale.[1]

I concluded that toxic leadership includes five dimensions:

1.       Self-Promotion: Toxic leaders frequently take all the credit for their team’s success and their employees’ good work. They blame employees for mistakes and deflect responsibility for errors. They’re very good at impression management and “managing up.” As a result, more senior executives perceive toxic leaders as rising stars. To the executives, it seems like the toxic leader is personally responsible for the good results despite having incompetent staff.

2.       Abusive Supervision: Toxic leaders abuse their employees. They publicly humiliate and emotionally abuse their staff, often reminding them of past failures. Abusive supervision is one dimension of toxic leadership that has been thoroughly researched, and the results are clear: employees with abusive supervisors are less satisfied[2], less committed[3], and are more deviant toward their fellow coworkers[4] and the organization as a whole.

3.       Unpredictability: A unique trait among toxic leaders, especially when compared to other office jerks or workplace bullies, is that they are unpredictable. Often, toxic leaders will be warm and welcoming one moment, then vicious and cruel the next. Employees never know what kind of behavior to expect, and this unpredictability keeps everyone on edge all the time. In fact, this creates a psychological effect called “learned helplessness.”[5] Essentially, when people are exposed to negative circumstances in a predictable way, they can prepare themselves and cope with the situation. Think about visiting your in-laws during the holidays – it may be unpleasant, but at least you know what to expect and when it’s coming. When people can’t predict the negative circumstances, they remain on edge for so long that they eventually give up and stop trying to protect themselves from harm. In other words, they learn to be helpless. Toxic leaders create this situation by making employees feel powerless to protect themselves.

4.       Narcissism: Toxic leaders have an unrealistically positive view of themselves and their ideas. They believe that they are destined for great things. They often ignore and minimize their employees’ suggestions, assuming that if the idea isn’t theirs, it isn’t good. Toxic leaders also assume they are above the rules and blatantly ignore policies. But of course, they expect everyone else to follow standard procedure.

5.       Authoritarianism: Toxic leaders micromanage their employees. It’s “their way or the highway.” They don’t empower their staff to take sole ownership of work and are often unwilling to delegate anything except the most basic, routine work. When they have to delegate, they carefully control the work and ensure employees are only doing things the leader’s way.

What is the Impact of Toxic Leadership? After developing and validating a scale to measure toxic leadership, my next step was to explore how toxic leadership impacts employee outcomes.[6] While this may seem obvious, no one else has researched this question. My findings were not surprising: toxic leadership was negatively related to job satisfaction, productivity, commitment, and trust in the organization. Across multiple studies and samples, higher levels of toxic leadership was significantly related to lower job outcomes. Toxic leadership also eroded group cohesion and motivated people to pull away from their work teams. Employees with toxic leaders were more intent on leaving the organization and were less likely to help coworkers.

Knowing what toxic leadership is and understanding its destructive effects begs the question: Why do these people get promoted in the first place? My next post will cover how toxic leaders are able to get into positions of power.

[2] Tepper, B. J., Duffy, M. K., Hoobler, J., & Ensley, M. D. (2004). Moderators of the relationships between coworkers' organizational citizenship behavior and fellow employees' attitudes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89, 455-465.

[3] Aryee, S., Sun, L., Chen, Z. X., & Debrah, Y. A. (2007). Antecedents and outcomes of abusive supervision: Test of a trickle-down model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 191-201.

[4] 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, 325–357.

[5] Seligman, M.E.P., Maier, S.F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74, 1–9.


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