As many of you know, my focus of research for the last three to four years has centered on toxic, unethical, abusive, and narcissistic leadership.

Many ask me why I focus on such a negative topic.

Why Not Focus on Happy Leadership Thoughts?

Disruptive leadership is a topic that is often ignored in the literature. Think about the times that we enter our favorite book store and look at the titles regarding leadership. All of the books teach us how to be better leaders. Even the works of Machiavelli (1469-1527) focused on how to be a great leader.

Machiavelli wrote about leadership back in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s stating that the only bad leader was a weak leader, and it was up to the leader to keep subordinates in line, even if it meant cruelty (Kellerman, 2004).

That was then. But in today’s world, we still see this same type of cruelty in leadership.

Workplace Incivility

Today’s workplace is a part of the society that we live in. Destructive behaviors can cause great psychological damage to victims.

As leaders and employees are faced with increased demands and pressures that impact their lives, we start to see incivility entering the workforce.

As a result of incivility, we find the following:

  • Higher than normal turnover
  • A large number of employees filing grievances and complaints
  • Increased complaints by customers
  • Reduced productivity
  • Cultural and communications barriers
  • Lack of confidence in the leadership
  • Inability to adapt effectively to change
  • Lack of accountability

To address these issues, organizations focus on developing employees to teach them how to communicate better, how to adapt to change, how to hold others accountable, and other training programs. But they fail to discuss incivility.

Promoted for Incivility?

Through my years of research, subjects have shared examples of how incivility has wreaked havoc in the workplace. One participant in a recent study shared a story of a leader who was involved in a relationship with his assistant. When this became public knowledge and was reported to senior leadership, a mock “investigation” took place.

Shortly after the investigation, all who were involved in testifying were eventually terminated from the organization. Reasons included lack of productivity, spreading malicious rumors, and lack of enthusiasm. The leader accused of the affair was not reprimanded. An apology was given to the leader with a promotion.

Later, people found out that senior leadership knew about the affair and it was actually cheered on by others within the leadership team. However, several people lost their jobs because of the unethical behaviors of the leader and leadership team.

Take a Look at these Examples

In another example, a leader that can best be described as a narcissist would often come into work and fire people just because. One day, an employee was touted publicly as an outstanding performer and recognized for their contributions. Approximately two or three days later, the employee was terminated.

One leader fired an employee simply because an employee had more education that he did. The employee asked what was wrong with their performance and the leader stated, “Nothing, it is outstanding. But, how does it look when an employee has more education than their boss?”

The Cruelest Story

Finally, the cruelest of stories was shared by several employees.

The leader would often come in and one never knew what to expect based on the mood of the leader. The leader often shared personal accounts of activities they engaged in with their spouse on the weekend. This was lunch time conversation.

A young employee was trying to have a child and suffered several miscarriages. When she returned to work after her most recent miscarriage, she found a box that was beautifully wrapped on her desk.  She opened it only to find a doll in the box. The doll resembled a small newborn baby. It was a gift from the leader.

The employee was devastated and the leader told the employee to pull it together. The leader said this with a roll of the eyes and a smirk.

A few days later, there was an accident where a woman was hit by a bus outside the building where this leader worked. Everyone knew that the leader was not in the office, and they ran to the window hoping that the person hit by the bus was actually the leader.

Instead of sadness or concern for the victim, they were joking to see who would buy the beers to celebrate the demise of the leader! One of the employees stated that they were saddened when they turned around to find the leader returning from lunch unscathed.

Leadership is the Culture

Naimie (2003) stated that positive and negative behaviors “flow down an organization”. If leadership displays uncivilized behaviors, then the expectation is for employees to act the same way.

While these behaviors cannot be blamed solely on leadership, as leaders we need to take a step back and reflect on our own behaviors. How do our behaviors impact others around us?

If leaders are acting out, then we can’t expect employees to behave any differently.

How Do We Keep Civility in Leadership?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Kellerman, B. (2004) Bad leadership: What it is, how it happens, why it matters. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School
Naimie, G., & Naimie, T., (2003). The bully at work: What can you do to stop the hurt and reclaim your dignity at work?  Naperville, IL:  Sourcebooks
Roter, A. (2011) The Lived Experiences of Registered Nurses Exposed to Toxic Leadership
Behaviors.  Doctoral Dissertation.  ProQuest
Dr. Annette Roter
Annette is an experienced leadership and organization development professional. Her research focus is on toxic and destructive behaviors within organizations. Her email is [email protected].