The Impact of Negative Leaders on Team Work

Updated Over a Week Ago


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Negative leaders are found in many organizations, both for-profit and non-profit. I am sure that we can all think of a leader that we have run into during our career who was a negative leader. When you think of that leader, take a step back and look at how that leader impacted you as an individual, impacted the team, and impacted the organization.

When one thinks of teamwork and leadership, it brings to mind great leaders: Vince Lombardi, Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and the list can go on. We envision inspirational leaders with leadership qualities that motivate people and inspire teamwork. They are seen as moving sports teams, organizations, and countries forward for the greater good.

On the other hand, we can envision negative leaders as well and our minds shudder to think of Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Fidel Castro, just to name a few. The list can be just as long for negative leaders as it can be for positive leaders.

Transactional Leadership

Let’s first get an understanding of negative leadership. Northouse (2007) described transactional leaders as leaders who do not focus on the individual needs of their followers but instead look to exchange things of value to advance their own and their subordinates’ agendas.

Transactional leadership focuses on the exchange between leaders and followers, with both parties receiving something of value (Boerner, Eisenbeiss & Greisser, 2007). So it makes sense that transactional leadership is a give or take philosophy. Transactional leaders use two different types of motivation, positive and negative. Positive motivation focuses on praise, promise, and rewards. Negative motivation focuses on negative feedback, threats, or disciplinary action (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999).

Negative or destructive leadership is nothing new. To Machiavelli (1469-1527) the only bad leader was a weak leader, and it was up to the leader to keep subordinates in line, even if it meant using cruelty (Kellerman, 2004). Negative or destructive leaders can be extremely successful and motivated depending on their dysfunction, but their followers suffer the impact of dysfunctional tendencies for months or years (Roter, 2011).

Destructive Leaders

Negative or destructive leaders look to separate (whether intentionally or unintentionally), divide, and create unrest within teams. Lipman-Blumen (2005) stated, “One person’s toxic leader is another person’s hero.” Researchers have shown a connection between toxic leadership tendencies and charismatic tendencies.

Negative leadership results from the leader’s charm and intelligence, the admiration of the follower, and an environment that supports negative behaviors. All of these elements help to feed the power of the negative leader (Klein & House, 1995; Popper, 2000). Lipman-Blumen (2005) suggested that the toxic leader will also use charismatic tendencies to manipulate, isolate, and ostracize his or her followers. This is where teamwork is impacted.

When a negative or destructive leader is around, followers will either look to move away from that leader or they will jump on the negative leader’s bandwagon. When this happens, a division occurs within the team. In some cases, the leader intentionally seeks to create turmoil in the team.

High drama, gossip, team sabotage, high emotions, and anxiety will occur on the team of a negative leader. The focus then turns away from the negative leader and shifts to the dysfunction of the team. With the attention drawn away from the leader, the leader continues with the negative behaviors.

When the leader is called out on these behaviors, the leader then turns to their devoted followers who are on the bandwagon. These followers will praise the leader, compliment and draw attention away from the negative leader (who is, remember, their hero), and back to other members of the team. Often, the negative leader will reward these followers with monetary or emotional rewards.

Dysfunctional Teams

Finally, followers won’t say anything and will suffer in silence or go about looking to leave the unit or the organization. In other cases, followers turn against the leader and form their own sub-team to support one another and to drive out or expose the leader. Teamwork efforts are futile, as members of the team either fight to support the negative leader or to flush the leader out.

In a recent research study conducted by Roter (2011), members of the study stated that they were often asked to attend team-building training and functions because they were viewed as dysfunctional.

For the first few days, things would change, and then slowly the team division returned. One participant in the study shared that the whole team was sent to psychological counseling because the leader thought that each team member had psychological issues.

This would happen several times a year. The leader would take these days off because she felt she didn’t need to attend the session. The participant also stated that it was the leader that needed help, not the team. The organization paid for these sessions, often costing thousands of dollars. The result: a team that was still not functioning.

So, the next time you find out that teamwork is needed, take a step back and ask “Is teamwork really the problem?” Many times we find that it is not the team that is having problems, but it is ultimately the person leading that team.

There may be an element of dysfunction within the team, but what is the underlying issue of that dysfunction? Many times it can be traced back to the behaviors of the leader, and the team’s reactions to the leader. When investigating the issues underlying team dysfunction, talk to everyone and get their input and insights.

How Do Negative Leaders Affect Teamwork?

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?

Dr. Annette Roter
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 abroter@yahoo.com.
  • Great article Annette! I’m going to check out your first article too. And yes, I can think of a couple negative leaders and how the affected the team.

  • Mary Kay Whitaker says:

    Fabulous article with excellent information that people need to know. I really like the point that negative leaders have followers that rescue and save them. People do funny things don’t they?

  • Michael Cerkas says:

    This article surely brings to mind one of our common leaders, yes? Looks like a spot-on analysis and description… Keep up the excellent work Annette… Best to you.

  • I could write a book based on my experiences with negative leaders. I’ve come to the conclusion that leadership draws people that are more narcissistic than the average person and that a higher percentage are pathologically narcissistic. What amazes me is how these people tend to dodge the bullet. I have seen whole teams dismantled in various ways to get the combination of people that tolerate the leader rather than replace the defective leader. In my opinion, it would be a lot less disruptive and costly to get rid of the leader…Easier in Machiavelli’s time, I am sure, but I digress. Sometimes I think we’d be better off picking leaders through a lottery.

  • Kenneth McGhee says:

    I agree. Without trust and correct roles you do not have a team.

  • Jackie Knight says:

    Great article Annette. I can think of quite a few destructive leaders. My experience with a few of them was part of my motivation to move into a coaching career. I also think that when it comes down to it, many of them could be classified as bullies.

  • Another type of leader is very highly technically skilled and attained his position by virtue of his skill and experience. However, he has no leadership skills and acts more like a figurehead, expecting those around him to do their work perfectly, whle he focuses on what he likes to most, his specialty. Not wanting to make decisions, and avoiding personnel issues at all costs, when pushed he issues arbitrary decisions that often make things worse. His people characterize his style as “the captain of the ship is whale-watching”

  • Annette Roter says:

    Hi all, thanks for the great comments!!! Destructive leaders impactings teams is such a huge component of what we do. Many times we look at a team think the team is dysfunctional but, it might be the leader. What happens if you have a functional team that comes into contact with another leader that causes dysfunction in their own team? If you have a cross functional team that dysfunction can enter into your team. You may have experienced this. If so, please feel free to share your stories! Annette

  • Great article about the dynamics of transactional and destructive leaders. Great job Annette!

  • Nicholas Cram says:

    Annette,
    Since my PhD is in Leadership and Organizational Management, this article was of particular interest and well written. Transformational leadership seems to be the norm for most businesses in the US. Transformational leadership would seem to be more effective for teams, since it relies on the leader to move the group toward a common “intellectual” goal.

  • Larry Cesare says:

    Well written and relevant to many organizational environments. However, it would be well to acknowledge that negative transactional leaders don’t exist in a vacuum; they can only function within organizations that enable their behavior. Because negative leaders are often adept at getting their superiors to view them as valued resources who “get things done”, some organizations may actually reward their accomplishments without regard for the “body count” required and may even “circle the wagons” to mitigate the legal exposure those leaders create. For the benefit of colleagues and dysfunctional work teams, perhaps consultants who have worked with organizations that enable negative transactional leadership behavior could share their experiences and suggestions.

  • Annette Roter says:

    Hello Larry, You are so right that these behaviors are often ignored or even promoted in organizations. Let me explain. In some cases organizations will ignore the behavior if the leader is reaching their productivity goals and impacting the business. The leader is then viewed as positive in a business sense. However, the behaviors and the turnover is what the organization does not explore. I worked in an HR function where the leader would turnover new employees on day 89 in a 90 day probationary period. There was always something that the leader didn’t like about these employees. One case was the way the employee looked. However, the leader was one of the highest producing work areas. Instead of addressing the behavior of the leader, they hired a recruiter that just focused on this leader’s hiring needs. Turnover was at an all time high in the department as well. Only a select few people were with the department for more than 2 years. But, they were also known as “friends” of the leader. They were rewarded with choice of hours, tasks they wanted to work on, and other special treatment by the leader. From the HR perspective it was difficult to shed light on what was happening. Upper leadership knew but, the leader got the volume numbers they needed. So, HR had to close their eyes and work to protect the organization from a legal aspect. I like your suggestions a niche market to say the least!! Annette B. Roter, PhD

  • James S Arnott says:

    Another fine article on leadership from Annette Roter. I am impressed with her insights regarding negative leadership. In the professional leadership we seem to be on academic overkill on what leaders should pursue to improve their skill sets; however, one of the hard stories is that some persons should simply not be leading. Thanks, I will continue to read this site regularly.

  • Dr. Cynthia Roundy says:

    Excellent! These “destructive leaders” have been well known for years. The major problem is that if they are leading organizations, then how do we get rid of them? We need ethics at the top…these others are not really leaders…although they are toxic! They should at most be “individual contributors”. No Emotional Intelligence and this is difficult to learn.

  • Annette Roter says:

    Hi Dr. Roundy, My research has focused on the lack of emotional intelligence of toxic leaders. Or should I say the lack there of. Seems to me that when we are looking at promoting or hiring leaders we have to stop looking at competencies of doing the job versus the abilities and the ability to lead. We can teach the technical components but, can’t teach the people part. We can try but, if they don’t get it then it is a struggle for all involved. You have caused me to think about how we hire and recruit for key leadership positions. Thanks for sharing and providing insights!! Dr. Annette B. Roter

  • Kathy Bauer says:

    Excellent article Annette. I”ve been reading articles lately about leaders having psychopathic traits, and/ or even bullying traits. It would be extremely difficult to teach these types of individuals any sort of emotional intelligence. I would like to see guidance for individuals who are forced to work with these types of leaders.

  • Vicki Swisher says:

    Insightful article Annette! I think once we reach mid-career we all, regrettably, will have dealt with at least one dysfunctional leader (I’ve had two – one more destructive than the other). The first was highly volatile – her assistant used to give us a thumbs up or down signal to warn us of this leader’s mood and we became trained to avoid the leader at all costs on a “thumbs down” day. The other leader, when their new team was formed, asked us to create a “get to know you” ice breaker. She shared her fun facts about herself first and then promptly left for another meeting – so she was not present for any of her team’s sharing! Needless to say, that set the tone for the team/team leader dynamics going forward.

  • Annette Roter says:

    Hi Vicki,

    I had a leader very similar. He was a Packers fan. If the Packers lost it was a horrible week. If the Packers won…well you could ask for anything and you got it. Fortunately, I reported to this leader when the Packers went to the Superbowl!!! Annette

  • Bernie Althofer says:

    I recently had a discussion with a colleague about bullying. He went to the local supermarket and the young checkout operator told him that she and 8 others were being ‘relocated’. When he asked why, she told him that it was because they had complained about the bullying behaviours of the manager. This is one way that organisations respond to allegations, and it is also how they reward those who achieve outcomes.

    Sometime ago, I went to a presentation where it was suggested that the biggest problem facing organisations was the BLM factor – Be Like Me. Like picks like in the recruitment and selection process and in this way the bullying behaviours become entrenched.

    A workplace culture of fear is created where no-one is game to speak up, and in some cases, as long as outcomes are being achieved, the business owners/shareholders etc are happy as the organisation is making money.

    In another forum the issue was about the dark side of an organisation. Some have suggested they are not allowed to talk about the dark side.

    Look at is this way. The good side making money for the organisation, people are working well together and generally everything is fine. The dark side is costing money in terms of lost productivity, low staff morale etc. Workplace bullying is from the dark side of organisational life. This is where the destructive leaders live and work and create havoc. This is the area that needs fixing. It is also the area that is avoided in some organisations.

  • Sharon L Liu says:

    Very clear article and from my research I also came across participants who described the type of negative leader you discribed. Also, the negative leader has some of the traits listed for psychopaths (Book: Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of The Psychopaths Among Us. Robert D. Hare, PhD

  • I am presently working for a large retailer. I have been bullied by the manager, along with just abiut the entire staff. It is amazing how the one man is able to turn the situation around, and blame that individual for the circumstance. Reading articles such as these have made my perspective alot easier to be able to deal with this bully. i certasinly hope that down the raod that congress does institute bullying and the workplace related health issues.

  • It is interesting how Annette Roter can successfully identify core problems in leadership that can undermine the real objective of team spirit. My first encounter is my current job where the leader(s) has followers to whom they dictate what level of discourse and vendictive conduct is directed towards me as an employee. The protocol in a professional organization leaves a lot to be desired. It is shocking and completely disgusting what I have experienced, in an attempt to discredit my professional progress and development. Usually, when there are challenges within an organization one must determine the root cause or examine the culture and politics of that organization and the leadership. If the leader strives on gossip or small talk then followers will seek to promote this. A leader, who has suffered low self esteem or bad social conditions will then to gravitate towards the transactional type leader and subsequently create discord.

    Overall, although it may be difficult to remain proactive under these callous and harsh conditions, it may well serve to remain cordial and professional while putting God first to see you through. It is never easy.

  • Concerned says:

    I love this and agree so much. The problem I see though is leadership is so precarious and subjective that it almost seems the fewer the better. Here is a recent letter I am sharing with my district and would love your feedback and thoughts:Many teachers have reported additional stress, gossip, gas lighting and miscommunication in our district lately. After brainstorming these problems with colleagues, many of us believe this negative behavior seems to have resulted in the changes that have taken place with the grade level leadership model (not the mentoring model) over the past 8 years. The current leadership model seems to creates division, displacing children’s immediate issues as top priority, contributing to a system of communication where much is lost in translation. The current team leader model makes it hard to suggest opinions without backlash. It has become too political creating hostility between district members when the system should be creating unity.

    After teaching for 17 years in elementary education, I have seen positive and negative changes take place. I have seen the pendulum swing back and forth, mandates come and go. I have witnessed both struggles and growth. Of all the changes, I think this grade level leadership model has caused more problems than solutions. I say this as a teacher who has been leader on and off the teams so I view it from both sides. Before the present team model, the entire school was a team, all were leaders, we still met as grade levels but we decided the agenda and we were all on equal playing field. Because our entire school was a team, we were friends across the grades, we lunched as one team, our team was our school, each an equal member. This brought a feeling of school team dynamic as opposed to such emphasis on grade levels. Our goal was to improve our schools for children looking at problems as they arose. Grade levels would meet and discuss plans. There was not one chosen leader, all were leaders, voices were equal, and conversations were natural as the politics of the meeting were not predominant, rather the problems occurring in the classroom at that moment.

    Team models where there is one constant leader seem to create division. Often, pecking order is established within the grade and the school due to the politics that arise in groups. Survival becomes the goal rather than the issues in the classrooms. Becoming friends with the leader so you have a voice is the underlying concern instead of speaking true feelings. Rather than focusing on problems at hand, there is a natural propensity to constantly speak in a manner that will be well perceived by the leader who then has discussions with the coach and principal. This is not always the case because there is the occasional team that works, however it is a shot in the dark where we assume positive intentions at all times from every member. There is no flexibility in this mindset as nobody is perfect all the time. Also consider the competition this elicits in our profession. If a teacher is a very good teacher this can be viewed as a threat to a leader’s position. In addition, if a teacher wants the position of leader, finding faults with the leader where faults don’t exist can also happen. With the past team model, all were team leaders, the conversations, leadership and objectivity were organic and student driven. On given days, different members lead due to natural variables like good days, good plans that week. This way, organic dynamics could be called into action depending on the situation. As it is, there is no formula to how a teacher is chosen as team leader, not high test scores, years of experience etc. so when others are supposed to follow, the reasons are very illusive thus again adding to a feeling of mistrust.

    This system automatically takes away transparency. The team members can’t be transparent, and the leader must speak in a way that is acceptable to the administration. This is a system where control is not in the hands of the teachers. The leadership/coach/admin meetings become a place where conversations are had in privacy and only the chosen are invited instead of the full staff meetings. This seems to have a negative effect on comradery and ownership of school ideas and spirit.

    Many colleagues and I are very concerned about what we see happening here, but not sure how to approach fixing it because of repercussions and labels such as bad team member or pot stirrer. This brings up the most important flaw in this system, that this model creates fear in our teachers. It puts us in survival mode where the only choice often feels like fight or flight. When we are not all team leaders, we don’t have authority over the problems, we are soon pointing fingers at those around us and nothing gets accomplished. We have noticed this happens with teachers, coaches, admins etc, the entire district. I believe this is because is too much bureaucracy and not enough specific responsibility allotted to the teachers, not enough invested ownership. The ending of “team leader” model would allow us to all be part of the agenda making, we could go back to addressing the actual needs of our students and their immediacy would take priority, meeting it with equality and support. The data information is important but absolutely should not be the reason for every meeting, and should not be priority. It should be a system that merits discussion but not worthy of costs and position requiring full leadership attention and focus.

    After discussing this with others who have seen problems arise, we brainstormed a few possible solutions. One option is to go back where meetings are had as one team, where all are invited. If schools returned to the traditional team model, I think we would feel trusted to discuss topics we see as problematic. With the micromanagement removed, we could discuss the immediate problems in our own classrooms at the moment instead of being forced to be bobble heads in survival mode. Veteran teachers and new teachers would have equal voice as it used to be and problems could be taken to one person, the administrator, so we are no longer playing a game of telephone where issues get lost in translation, but actually addressing the needs of our students.

    The other possibility we considered in our conversations was the possibility of making sure our leadership/team meetings are very intentional as are the roles. We wondered if possibly the teams were blaming each other because the guidelines are not specific or the expectations are not explicit enough for people to understand their roles. When we currently have meetings, we sometimes have agendas, sometimes we don’t. We often don’t have enough time to finish data let alone the extras. We are not sharing the data consistently across the grade levels or the same as schools, this can lead to frustration rather than independence. Not all grade levels are following PLC so when teachers share PLC training they have had, they are met with opposition. I think the district’s intent is to create ownership but compare it to a ship in the ocean with many captains. This does not make the passage easier, rather the whole trip ends in mutiny. The ambiguity also is present in leadership. We are not clear as to their role, where is separates leader from coach and principal so when we go to one place we are told to go to another because nobody is quite sure. If this can be an agreed upon system where jobs are delegated, I think this would help clarify everyone’s roles and solidify contribution.

    We also thought if this models stays, it might be appropriate to rotate teachers each year as to value the opinions and leadership from every teacher while simultaneously eliminating competition and blame.

    Teacher friends and I are of the consensus that this is not a flaw of people, not the flaw of district, but rather a flaw in a system that is too bureaucratic, prioritizes numbers instead of people, and does not trust its teachers to state opinions for themselves. This change has resulted in demeaned feelings and mistrust on behalf of several district members. It feels like it flips support where district used to be there to support teachers, it feels like the reverse it true now, the teachers are there to support the needs of district and data. Many wonder if this is due to a trickle down top heavy mandate from a political entity with its own agenda because it feels a little controlling and oppressive.

    I hope this letter is helpful and not just a page full of complaints. My intention is to truly help share some of the talk that is happening here in the district but also alert you to why it isn’t being shared. I love our district, it has the best heart in the world, but our body seems dysfunctional as the parts don’t seem to serve a definitive purpose so suffering is a result.

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