A Toxic Boss Hurts Team Member Productivity and Health

November 1, 2018

A Toxic Boss Hurts Team Member Productivity and Health

HR executives have seen it all—talented and engaged bosses and team members, toxic bosses and team members, and everything in between.

You have observed that leaders do not have a neutral impact for very long. Either bosses have a positive impact on performance and values (how people treat each other at work) or they have a negative impact.

Recent research along with seminal studies from nine years ago make it impossible to ignore how much bad bosses hurt team member productivity and health.

A 2017 study found that bosses with mood swings have greater negative impact on employee stress and productivity than if their bosses were consistently nasty. 320 workers in three companies (two in the UK and one in India) were the foundation of this research.

Given the erratic behavior of business leaders and politicians around the globe (and featured in news reports daily), it’s no wonder that stress in their organizations is high.

A 2017 meta-analysis found that stressed-out bosses have a significant negative impact on employee morale and performance. In addition, the greater the stress the boss felt, the more likely that boss will lash out at team members. The research team examined findings on leadership, stress, and burnout from over 150 studies from more than 25 countries. 

A 2012 meta-analysis compared 279 studies. Researchers found strong correlations between perceived unfairness by bosses and employee depression, sleep problems, high blood pressure, and being overweight. 

The most damaging evidence comes from the 2009 Swedish WOLF study which analyzed data from 3,100 men to see whether the leadership qualities of their bosses impacted heart health. Their findings indicate that men who rated their bosses as poor were at a 20 percent greater risk of developing heart disease over a 10-year period. 

The bosses in your organizations may not be quite as bad as these studies’ findings, but you know you’ve got bosses demonstrating bad behaviors too frequently.

Toxic leader behavior and the improving global economy are likely contributors to US employees quitting their jobs at a greater rate than seen in two decades. In August 2018, more than 3,900,000 voluntarily quit their jobs. And the low unemployment rate means these players are finding new jobs quickly. 

We’ve all seen the damage toxic bosses can do. And, many of us have seen the benefit that great bosses bring to work cultures and team members. GREAT bosses demonstrate five characteristics consistently. They:

  • Inspire Growth
  • Honor Relationships
  • Inspire Excellence
  • Ensure Accountability, and
  • Spur Teamwork

In 2016 I published the results of my GREAT boss assessment. Data from over 4,200 global respondents proved that there are GREAT bosses out there—just not enough of them! For example, only 45 percent of respondents said their bosses inspire their best efforts each day. A higher number (58 percent) say their bosses treat them with trust and respect daily.

The accountability factor was the lowest scoring characteristic: 44 percent said that their bosses hold team members accountable for performance while only 32 percent said their bosses hold team members accountable for values and behaviors. 

As HR executives, you are the “adults in the room”—a credible and influential voice in helping eliminate toxic behaviors by leaders (and by team members). You won’t get far, though, simply pointing out bad behavior.

Making Values Matter
Your organization and its senior leaders have tolerated bad behavior for a long time. Those norms are, unfortunately, embedded as daily practices.

To “stop the insanity,” you must help senior leaders make values—how people treat each other at work—as important as results.

I coach my clients in creating an organizational constitution, a formal statement that adds servant purpose and valued behaviors to your existing (and likely primary) performance targets of strategies and goals.

Your company’s servant purpose formalizes your present-day reason for being besides making money. It specifies who you serve (your customers) and how you improve customers’ quality of life on a daily basis. This creates clarity and meaning beyond results and profits.

Next, define your organization’s values in observable, tangible, and behavioral. This vital step makes values as measurable as results and enables senior leaders to demonstrate defined valued behaviors, coach others’ valued behaviors, praise aligned valued behaviors, and re-direct misaligned behaviors. For example, if one of your values is integrity, you might include an observable behavior like “I do what I say I will do” as a standard for modeling your integrity value.

Don’t leave the quality of your work culture to chance. Be explicit about how you want leaders and team members to treat others: with trust, respect, and grace. We don’t have as many positive role models—in our workplaces or houses of worship or in the political arena—as people deserve.

Define your desired culture with an organizational constitution, then align all plans, decisions, and actions to those agreements.

You’ll boost employee productivity, sanity, and health with every interaction.

The Authors: 

S. Chris Edmonds is the founder and CEO of The Purposeful Culture Group.