Destructive leadership

There are two very different types of destructive leadership: passive (laissez-faire) leadership and aggressive (bullying) leadership.

  • • Passive (laissez-faire) leaders are those who avoid or delay making decisions and taking action when problems arise. They also have poor relationships with those they manage because they tend not to praise good behaviour or admonish poor behaviour. Passive leaders are terrified of conflict and will do everything they possibly can to avoid it. Passive leadership causes all kinds of problems, such as role confusion, with people not being sure what is expected of them. Passive leadership also causes bad feelings when employees who behave badly or ‘freeload’ are tolerated. This confusion and lack of perceived fairness causes enormous levels of stress in members of the organisation.
  • • Aggressive leaders are the ‘Type A’ personalities described in Chapter 4. They are usually the people at the top of the organisational dominance hierarchy. They achieve dominance by being assertive, loud and forceful in their interactions with others and by using coercion and intimidation to get their way. Essentially, they are bullies.

The Dark Triad

Of the aggressive leaders, the most damaging are those who have Dark Triad personality traits. In 2002, Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams wrote a classic paper identifying the three personality traits that are the cause of most problems in organisations, especially when people with these traits occupy positions of leadership. They termed this ‘the Dark Triad’ (Paulhus & Williams, 2002).

The Dark Triad consists of three traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. Leaders with this Dark Triad of personality are amoral, cynical and manipulative. They have an exaggerated sense of entitlement and feel superior to other people. They genuinely don’t care about others and they are impulsive. In the big five model of personality, these are highly extroverted individuals who are low on agreeableness, openness and neuroticism. In other words, they are loud, enjoy combat and don’t worry about anything.

The novelist John le Carré described the Dark Triad personality beautifully in his 2014 novel, A Delicate Truth. One of the characters, Jay Crispin, is described as “your normal, rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely spoken frozen adolescent in a bespoke suit, with an unappeasable craving for money, power and respect, regardless of where he got them from” (le Carré, 2014, p. 29S).

Psychopaths in the workplace

Of the three personality traits making up the Dark Triad, the most malevolent is psychopathy. An interesting study by Clive Boddy of a sample of 346 Australian senior white collar workers found that around 26 per cent of workplace bullying is accounted for by the 1 per cent of employees who are corporate psychopaths (Boddy, 2011).

When most people hear the word ‘psychopath’, they think of serial killers like Fred and Rosemary West or fictional characters like Hannibal Lecter. However, these violent killers are just the tip of the iceberg. The world’s leading expert on psychopaths, Professor Robert Hare, has estimated that only one in thirty thousand psychopaths goes on to kill or commit serious violence (Hare, 1994). Like the bulk of the iceberg, most psychopaths exist unseen and out of sight beneath the waterline. And like the iceberg that sank the Titanic, they can cause massive damage to businesses and those who work in them.

Psychopathy exists on a continuum. Most psychopaths aren’t physically violent, and, interestingly, most violent people aren’t psychopaths. The majority of psychopaths stay within the confines of the law (sometimes only just). Psychopaths make up about 1 per cent of the general population. The figure rises to 4 per cent in corporate executives (Hare, 1994). This figure is higher because the psychopath’s ruthlessness, ability to manipulate people and glib charm helps them to quickly climb the corporate ladder.

So, if your business employs 100 people, it’s likely there will be between one and four psychopaths walking around the building, probably in positions of influence or authority. You can also guarantee that these people will cause most of the problems in the business.

What is a psychopath?

In 1977, Harvard psychologist Cathy Widom placed an advert in a local newspaper. It read: “Wanted: charming, aggressive, carefree people who are impulsively irresponsible but are good at handling people and looking after number one.” This was how she found subjects for her classic study on ‘non-institutionalised psychopaths’ (Widom, 1977). As she predicted, all of those who responded met the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy. The description used in the advert paints a pretty good picture of how a corporate psychopath might come across in real life.

Psychopaths are people who are superficially normal and often likeable; like the people described in Cathy Widom’s advert (“charming, aggressive, carefree people who are impulsively irresponsible but are good at handling people and looking after number one.”) However, under this mask of normality they lack any significant emotional life. They don’t feel guilt, empathy or anxiety. The only emotions they do experience are a desire to win and rage when they are obstructed or frustrated. This lack of emotions leads to poor impulse control and a lack of respect for other people.

The main factor that determines whether a person with a psychopathic personality ends up in prison or the boardroom seems to be their ability to control their impulsive behaviour and social anxiety. They care about what some people (not all) think of them, which seems to keep them from breaking the law or behaving too impulsively when they know they are being watched (Fowles & Dindo, 2009).

Psychopaths at work

Even murderous psychopaths have to earn a living. Look at these examples:

  • • Harold Shipman, GP: killed about 2S0 people.
  • • Denis Neilson, civil servant: killed 17 men.
  • • Fred West, builder: killed about 13 women.
  • • Ted Bundy, lawyer: killed 36 women.

The point is, that even the very worst psychopath, the serial killer, the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent, doesn’t look crazy. If you had been one of Dr Shipman’s patients, would you, for even a second, have suspected that he was a psychopath and a serial killer? Probably not. They live and work amongst us and are invisible. That is, until they get caught doing something egregiously wrong. That might be killing someone; but more likely, it’s lying or embezzling - or bullying a subordinate to such an extent that the victim experiences burnout. Either way, people and businesses are hurt. Psychologists Paul Babiak and Bob Hare have written extensively about psychopaths in the workplace - or corporate psychopaths as they call them (Babiak & Hare, 2006).

Destructive leadership and burnout

It’s easy to see that the destructive leadership style of the Dark Triad results in a toxic organisational culture and ultimately burnout for members of that organisation. Dark Triad leaders are abusive and often aggressive, and research shows a strong relationship between this abusive leadership and the factors that result in burnout (Tepper, 2000). Dark Triad leaders leave their direct reports feeling confused, emotionally exhausted, helpless and alienated from the organisation, and experiencing poor work satisfaction (Ashforth, 1997).

The opposite of Dark Triad leadership, passive leadership, is problematic too. These are the leaders who avoid making decisions and taking responsibility, and generally fail to take up any authority. This leads to all kinds of problems, including role confusion and a leadership vacuum, resulting in office politics and power struggles. A study looking at passive leadership in the nursing profession found that it resulted in more burnout, particularly feelings of exhaustion and a lack of professional accomplishment (Kanste et al., 2007). Other research has demonstrated a link between passive leadership and burnout in the IT industry (Hetland et al., 2007).

Ultimately, both aggressive, bullying leadership and absent leadership result in elevated levels of burnout.

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