Negative Leaders

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, admiration by 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.

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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 on 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 when 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?

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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].