Running Head: DESTRUCTIVE LEADERSHIP Â
A Literature Review of Destructive Leadership: Leaders, Followers, and Breaking the Cycle Derek Floyd University of San Diego
A Literature Review of Destructive Leadership: Leaders, Followers, and Breaking the Cycle The majority of leadership research has, until recently, focused on factors and traits of effective leadership (Ashforth, 1994; Einarsen, Aasland, & Skogstad, 2007; Pelletier, 2010; Schaubroeck, Walumbwa, Ganster, & Kepes, 2007; Shaw, Erickson, & Harvey, 2001; Thoroughgood, Hunter & Sawyer, 2011; Tierney & Tepper, 2007). However, a growing body of research has emerged to understand the darker side of leadership (Aasland, Skogstad, Notelaers, Morten, Nielsen, & Einarsen, 2010; Jonason, Slomski,& Partyka, 2011; Pelletier, 2010; Shaw et al., 2001; Tierney & Tepper, 2007). In this paper I will review the literature on destructive leadership, specifically looking at behaviors of destructive leaders, effects on subordinates and their reactions, what role followers play, and how one can break the cycle of abuse. Researchers have proposed a variety of descriptions of the darker side of leadership, including: tyrannical (Ashforth, 1994), bullying (Boddy, 2011), abusive (Tepper, Moss, & Duffy, 2011), narcissistic (Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2006), destructive (Einarsen et al., 2007) and toxic (Lipman-Blumen, 2005; Reed, 2004). Some frameworks describe harmful actions by leaders against subordinates, while others expand that to include destructive actions against the organization (Einarsen et al., 2007; Pelletier, 2010; Shaw et al., 2001). Collectively, these approaches to the understanding of the dark side of leadership have been labeled destructive leadership (Shaw et al., 2011). While there are behavioral overlaps within each of these frameworks (i.e., tyrannical, abusive, destructive, toxic, etc.), there are also behaviors unique to each theory (Pelletier, 2010). Pelletier (2010) provided an empirical examination of leader behaviors that subordinates perceive to be toxic and developed a typology of destructive leader behaviors to be used in future
research. Eight dimensions of leader toxicity resulted from Pelletier’s (2010) study, including: attacking follower’s self-esteem; divisiveness; social exclusion; promoting inequity; abusive; threatening employee’s occupational and/or personal security; lack of integrity; and laissez-faire attitude (i.e., failed to act on employee concerns). From the eight behavioral dimensions, Pelletier (2010) developed a 51-item leader behavior assessment, which resulted in a typology of toxic leader behavior and rhetoric. Pelletier’s (2010) work supports the behaviors identified in existing destructive leadership theories and provides a typology from which future researchers can build upon. Similarly, Shaw et al. (2011) identified seven behavioral factors that can be construed within the label destructive leadership. However, Shaw et al. (2011) found that, from the perspective of followers, leaders were classified as destructive based on a high rating on only a few negative behaviors, and more importantly, destructive leaders have positive characteristics and do not exhibit harmful behavior at all times, nor to all subordinates equally, which is also echoed by Lipman-Blumen (2005a, 2005b), Einarsen et al. (2007), and Aasland et al. (2010). Aasland et al. (2010) provided a nuanced concept of destructive leadership behavior, building upon a definition and conceptual model from Einarsen et al. (2007). Aasland et al.’s (2010) model examines two dimensions of leadership behavior: anti- or pro-subordinate on one axis, and anti- or pro- organization on the other. In dissecting the two dimensions, five categories of leadership behavior result: one constructive (e.g., pro-subordinate and proorganization); three actively destructive (e.g., tyrannical leadership, derailed leadership, and supportive-disloyal leadership; and one passively destructive (e.g., laissez-faire leadership). Aasland et al. (2010) concluded that leaders exhibit both constructive and destructive behaviors (e.g., they are not one or the other), and they use these behaviors in different combinations in
relation to different followers, who will each have different reactions to the leader’s behavior. Followers then, are an important piece of the destructive leadership puzzle. (Aasland et al., 2010; Lipman-Blumen, 2005a, 2005b; Pelletier, 2012). Pelletier (2011) examined follower perceptions of leader toxicity, specifically drawing upon leader-member exchange theory (LMX) to see how the follower’s relationship with the leader affected their perception of the leader’s toxicity and the likelihood that the follower would challenge the destructive leader. In high LMX relationships, the leader views the follower as competent, dependable, and likeable, and in exchange the follower receives positional resources and benefits. In low LMX relationships, followers are not privy to the same level of communication with the leader as their high LMX counterparts and they tend to be excluded from important activities. Pelletier (2011) found that those with high LMX (i.e., those closest to the leader) may not perceive the toxic behavior, and even if they did, they were less inclined to challenge the leader because part of the exchange is protecting the leader. Pelletier (2011) also found that low LMX followers were more readily able to perceive toxic behavior and also were more willing to report the leader. Pelletier (2011) provided some important implications for leaders, followers, and organizations. Leaders who develop low LMX relationships should be aware that their actions could be perceived as toxic, even if they are not. She also cautions followers with low LMX to not challenge a destructive leader without building a coalition, also a strategy of Lipman-Blumen (2005a, 2005c), and to try to include members with high LMX in the coalition (Pelletier, 2011). For organizations, Pelletier (2011) suggests that low LMX individuals are more likely to ensure a healthy work environment as they are more able to perceive and more likely to challenge toxic leader behavior. She also notes that since many victims of destructive leadership ultimately leave the organization, exit interviews should ensure
anonymity and should be used to evaluate whether or not the leader may need executive coaching (Pelletier, 2011). Burton and Hoobler (2006) also looked at the relationship between destructive leader and follower, and found that destructive leadership negatively affects follower’s state self-esteem (e.g., momentary changes in a persons level of self-esteem in response to some situational stimulus) and that women suffer greater decreases in state self-esteem following a destructive episode. Burton and Hoobler (2006) were one of the first to find support for the idea that gender factors into translating the effects of destructive leadership and recommend future research should continue looking at gender and destructive leadership. In place of gender as a moderating influence, Mitchell and Ambrose (2007) examined negative reciprocity beliefs (i.e., the tendency for an individual to return negative treatment for negative treatment received) as a moderating influence in follower reactions, specifically workplace deviance. Workplace deviance is the purposeful behavior against organizational norms, and can be organizational or interpersonal. Mitchell and Ambrose (2007) further distinguished interpersonal deviance into actions directed against a supervisor and those behaviors directed at other individuals. Mitchell and Ambrose (2007) found that subordinates exposed to destructive leadership directly influenced employee’s willingness to engage in workplace deviance, and individuals with high negative reciprocity beliefs more so. This study also shows how deviance at the supervisor level of the organization is directly related to deviance at other levels (i.e., retaliation by employees) (Mitchell & Ambrose, 2007). Unfortunately, the harmful effects of destructive leadership extend beyond the subordinate and the workplace to the victim’s partners and family (Carlson, Ferguson, Perrewé, & Whitten, 2011). Carlson et al. (2011) used spillover theory (e.g., the extent to which
someone’s participation in one domain, such as work, impacts their participation in another domain, such as family) to examine the impact of abuse at work on that subordinate’s family relationships. Carlson et al. (2011) found that destructive leadership crosses over into the family domain by creating relationship tension between the subject of the abuse and their partner. This is important research because previous studies have not extended the negative effects of destructive leadership beyond the organization or the abused employee (Carlson et al., 2011). Given the negative effects of destructive leadership, why then would we want toxic leaders (Lipman-Blumen, 2005a, 2005b)? Lipman-Blumen (2005a, 2005b) offered six factors of the human condition that allow us to be susceptible to destructive leaders: existential anxiety (i.e., the awareness that we all must die); psychological needs (i.e., our needing to feel chosen or special); an uncertain, disorderly world; the historical moment in which we live, marked by special terrors and challenges (i.e., terrorism); psychosocial needs; and that we live in an unfinished and unfinishable world. Confronting these anxieties is challenging, and thus we seek out leaders who provide the illusion of a controlled world, security, certainty and order. LipmanBlumen (2005a, 2005b) further differentiates between the grand illusions of toxic leaders with the noble visions of nontoxic leaders. Grand illusions provide followers with the following: an unattainable Nirvana; paint the leader as an omnipotent savior; the idea of an idyllic, untainted world; and finally mistakes evil for a moral act. Given the sheer range of anxieties (i.e, psychological, psychosocial, existential, etc.) we face, it is understandable why followers become susceptible the allure of toxic leaders who falsely offer of hope, security, and order (Lipman-Blumen, 2005a, 2005b). Indeed, destructive leadership is a complex process, and several studies look beyond the leader’s behavior and follower’s susceptibility to include a conducive environment as an integral
factor; these three elements are known as the dark triad or toxic triangle (Padilla, Hogan, & Kaiser, 2007; Thoroughgood et al., 2011). Padilla et al. (2007) characterize destructive leaders by charisma, personalized needs for power, narcissism, negative life history, and an ideology of hate. Padilla et al. (2007) also identify two types of followers that support destructive leadership: conformers, who passively allow abusive leaders to assume power, and colluders, who want to promote themselves. To complete the triangle, Padilla et al. (2007) identified four environmental factors important for destructive leadership to occur: instability; perceived threat; cultural values; and lack of checks and balances and institutionalization. Padilla et al. (2007) recommend three suggestions: effective leader selection and development; developing stronger followers through empowerment; and organizational improvement through the presence of checks and balances. Thoroughgood et al. (2011) expanded on the work of Padilla et al. (2007) to look at specific environmental factors in the dark triad, including the organizationâ€™s climate and financial stability. Thorroughgood et al. (2011) also examined if the gender of the leader affected perceived destructive behavior. The results of the study indicates agreement with Padilla et al. (2007), in that future research on destructive leadership should move beyond an inherently trait-based perspective and expand our understanding of destructive leadership as a complex convergence of leader, follower and environmental factors (Thorroughgood et al., 2011). What are some common coping strategies utilized by subjects of destructive leadership and is it possible to ever break the cycle of abuse? Tepper, Duffy, and Shaw (2001) examined personality moderators in the relationships between destructive leadership and subordinates reactions and resistance. Tepper et al. (2001) specifically looked at two dimensions of
personality, conscientiousness and agreeableness, on the relationship between abuser and subordinate resistance. Resistance may involve either constructive efforts (e.g., open communication and request clarification from supervisor) or dysfunctional reactions, which often include passive-aggressive responses (e.g., pretending one does not have time or did not hear a request). Dysfunctional responses, Tepper et al. (2001) not surprisingly found, only perpetuated the cycle of abuse. Therefore, Tepper et al. (2001) suggested that one way for subordinates to break the cycle of abuse associated with destructive leadership is through the use of constructive resistance strategies. Constructive resistance strategies provide both contentious and noncontentious elements. Remaining positive and demonstrating a willingness to work things out can frustrate abusers (e.g., contentious), while at the same time communicating a genuine desire to resolve conflicts, clarifying responsibilities, and expressing concern for task performance is non-contentious. Purely non-contentious responses to destructive leadership can fail to break the cycle because they can cause subordinates to appear weak and expose themselves to further abuse. Tepper et al. (2001) recommend that a mix of contentious and non-contentious responses is the best strategy to break the cycle, and this can be done through constructive resistance strategies. Another solution for coping with destructive leadership was presented by Perrone and Vickers (2004), who provided a case study in the use of emotions as a strategic game in a hostile workplace. While organizations tend to expect employees to leave their feelings at home when they arrive at work, the reality is that emotions are an integral part of our lives and inseparable from our work life (Perrone & Vickers, 2004). Perrone and Vickers (2004) explore two concepts in relation to employees using emotional responses at work strategically to serve their own purposes: surface acting and deep acting. With surface acting, an employee acts out a part but
does not feel the emotions they portray. Deep acting is when one changes their feelings to conform to the role they are asked to play within the organization. Perrone and Vickers (2004) introduced a new perspective on emotions in organizational life; specifically that emotions are strategically hidden, acted or openly expressed. For the employee in Perrone and Vickers’ (2004) case study, she knew there were certain emotions she could not openly express without receiving negative responses from destructive leaders, and therefore she kept those emotions hidden to avoid harm. She also knew that the destructive leaders in her workplace got annoyed when employees were positive and happy, so she utilized surface acting to fake emotions that she did not genuinely feel. Through acting emotions, the employee was able to, in a small way, retaliate against her abusers and maintain some sense of control in the situation. A final strategy utilized by the employee was openly expressing emotions; she deliberately expressed her own aggression to intimidate and let the destructive leaders know she was able to defend herself (Perrone and Vickers, 2004). This strategic game with emotions as a coping mechanism to deal with destructive leaders poses some challenges. Trying to hide or suppress one’s emotions over a long period of time may not be effective or healthy, as eventually those emotions may erupt. Also, another negative consequence experienced by the employee in Perrone and Vickers’ (2004) case study was the act of openly expressing aggressive emotion to counter the hostility experienced in the workplace actually, over time, carried over into the employee’s home life. This, perhaps, echoes the important research of Carlson et al. (2011) previously mentioned, where the negative effects of destructive leadership extend well beyond the workplace to the home. While Perrone and Vickers (2004) portray the use of emotions as a strategy to combat or counter destructive leadership, I am not convinced how viable an option this really is.
Lipman-Blumen (2005a), however, probably offers the most comprehensive set of strategies for followers to break free from the hold of toxic leaders. She recommends both personal options and policy options. For personal options, Lipman-Blumen (2005a) outlines the following steps: do your homework; create a coalition; and avoid solo confrontations. By doing one’s homework, Lipman-Blumen (2005a) suggests investigating the destructive leader’s past work experiences to see if they left a pattern of abuse in previous organizations, and if so one should document the abuse and share it with co-workers. She also advises that followers keep a log to document the abuse perpetrated in one’s own organization. She continues by recommending that one find trusted colleagues to consult with; the follower may find they are not alone in their perceptions of the abusive leader. Next, Lipman-Blumen (2005a) recommends building a coalition. It may be wise to consider the work of Pelletier (2011) and, if possible, try to include in your coalition those with high LMX relationships with the destructive leader. Develop a strategy for how to confront the leader and try to frame the concerns in relation to the negative impact on the organization. Along with building a coalition, Lipman-Blumen (2005a) warns to avoid solo confrontations without witnesses, and offer to work together with the leader to improve the situation, very much akin to the constructive resistance strategy recommended by Tepper at al. (2001). Lipman-Blumen (2005a) warns that inevitably one may hit a dead end and may require more drastic personal measures. She cautiously suggests that one might need to create a strategy to topple or oust the destructive leader. Plan quietly and seek peers of the leader or board members who may share the same concerns. Alerting the media is a dangerous avenue, but in some circumstances may be necessary. Lipman-Blumen (2005a) warns that at this point you are in dangerous territory, and the damage could well extend beyond the workplace to your home
and family life, so proceed with caution. Again, even attempts to resolve the actions of destructive leaders can have grave consequences well beyond the confines of the organization, extending, as Carlson et al. (2011) demonstrated, to the home. Lipman-Blumen (2005a) also recommends some policy options that organizations today would be wise to consider. She recommends the concept of term limits for leaders. Leaders follow a trajectory from innovation, to peak performance, then plateau and eventually decline. Organizations (e.g., boards) should monitor performance, and pay attention to leader behavior, particularly in stages of plateau and decline. Another policy Lipman-Blumen (2005a) recommends is the use of 360-degree reviews for leaders. Confidentially including a variety of stakeholders and even subordinates may help uncover a clear understanding of the leaderâ€™s positive and potentially destructive behaviors. As Pelletier (2011) recommended, be sure to include subordinates with low LMX relationships in the evaluation, as those individuals would have a higher propensity to perceive and be honest about the destructive leaderâ€™s behaviors. Additional policy options Lipman-Blumen (2005a) recommends include: educating constituents to confront fears and anxieties, thus freeing them from toxic leaderâ€™s grand illusions; holding regular accountability forums; and ensuring that protective mechanisms are in place to enable safe and secure reporting by whistle-blowers. Destructive leadership is costly; the emotional, psychological, and financial toll it takes on employees and organizations is staggering. While research aimed at understanding the dark side of leadership is relatively new, much of the work examined here offers excellent initial insights into the causes and effects of destructive leadership. Certainly, more work needs to be done. The initial work of Carlson et al. (2011), who found that the effects of abusive supervision extended to the personal relationships of the abused employee, for example, definitely deserves
further exploration. Predictors of destructive leadership would also be useful, so that organizations could possibly better heed warning signs before the problem became to damaging. Given the prevalence of destructive leadership in our organizations today (Aasland et al., 2010), more research should be dedicated to expand on Lipman-Blumenâ€™s (2005a) work to provide strategies for breaking the cycle of abuse.
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