Psychologists define destructive leadership as selfish behaviour that harms or is intended to harm the leader’s organisation and/or employees. It is a worldwide, cross-cultural phenomenon that often involves deception, coercion, intimidation and other objectionable behaviour.
A study led by University of Bergen scientist Merethe Schanke Aasland found that 83.7% of employees in a European survey reported exposure to some form of destructive leadership. Furthermore, 33.5% of respondents reported experiencing at least one destructive behaviour ‘quite often’ or ‘very often or nearly always’ within the past six months. In other words, destructive leadership is not uncommon.
Employees exposed to high levels of destructive behaviour typically perform worse
Dozens of different forms of destructive leadership have been identified. More usefully, one method of quantifying destructive leadership behaviours classifies them along two dimensions. One is the extent to which they target the organisation as opposed to people; the other is the extent to which the behaviour is high or low in hostility. This creates four broad categories of destructive behaviour.
Organisation-directed behaviours that are high in hostility include acts of sabotage and vandalism – although this category crops up comparatively rarely. Organisation-directed behaviours that are low in hostility are more common and include theft, embezzlement, breaking the law or company rules, and even substance abuse while at work.
Employee-directed behaviours high in hostility include bullying, intimidation and aggression towards employees. This category also includes passive-aggressive behaviour such as deliberately excluding employees or repeatedly reminding them of their past mistakes and failures.
Employee-directed behaviours low in hostility tend to be exploitative in nature, and are aimed at furthering the leader’s self-interest at the cost of employees’ careers or wellbeing. This category includes taking credit for employees’ achievements, manipulating employees and generally using rather than developing employees.
Many staff respond by reducing their level of engagement, taking sick leave or quitting
Unsurprisingly, hundreds of research studies on destructive leadership have found that it adversely affects both organisations and employees. Employees exposed to high levels of destructive behaviour typically perform worse in their jobs, experience poorer mental health and feel less committed to their organisations.
However, researchers led by Art Padilla at North Carolina State University have pointed out that few leaders exhibit only destructive behaviours. A leader whose behaviour is always destructive is easy to spot and remove from the organisation. The majority of leaders engage in both constructive and destructive behaviours. So long as the benefits to the organisation outweigh the harm that is done, there is often insufficient incentive for senior decision-makers to deal with destructive leadership.
Another issue is that not all destructive behaviour is intentional. Psychological scientists led by Susanna Tafvelin at Umeå University found that certain aspects of destructive leadership were related to leaders’ levels of work stress. In other words, some destructive leadership happens because leaders feel emotionally overwhelmed. This suggests that coaching and development aimed at boosting leaders’ resilience and mental health may also reduce occurrences of destructive leadership.
However, data from Tafvelin’s team showed that other aspects of destructive leadership were related to leaders’ fundamental personalities. Leaders low on the personality dimension of agreeableness and high on neuroticism tended to display more aggressive behaviour. This finding supports the use of rigorous personality tests and structured interviews by organisational psychologists to screen out candidates who exhibit high levels of destructive leadership.
Strong organisational checks can make it harder for destructive leadership to thrive
Conformers and colluders
Why do employees put up with destructive leadership, though? Employees may either be conformers or colluders. Conformers comply with destructive leaders out of fear of further abusive treatment or even job loss. In contrast, colluders may actively contribute to a destructive leader’s agenda because they either receive tangible gains or the higher status that goes with being favoured by the leader.
Strong organisational checks and balances can make it harder for destructive leadership to thrive. For example, senior leaders tend to be supervised much less than junior ones and therefore can get away with more destructive behaviour; in these situations, anonymous upward feedback processes help to highlight and therefore reduce such conduct. Younger or smaller organisations may also be more conducive environments for destructive leadership, as they have yet to put in place strong policies and procedures to protect employees.
Surveys show that employees cope in various ways. Unfortunately, many respond unproductively by worrying, countering with aggression, reducing their level of engagement with their work, taking sick leave or quitting. More successful coping methods include developing mental resilience, assertively challenging the leader, or seeking allies and building coalitions of support.
Watch our video with Dr Rob Yeung on power and recognising your value in the workplace.
Visit ACCA’s wellbeing hub for advice and resources to support your mental health at work.