The “Trickle-Down” Effect of Toxic Leadership

In recent years, there has been growing interest in the “dark side” of leadership.  Researchers have described toxic leadership as abusive, petty, bullying, tyrannical, unpredictable, narcissistic, and authoritarian. 

It has been said that toxic leaders “rise to their stations in life over the carcasses of those who work for them.”(1) The psychological impact of this type of destructive leadership is significant.

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From publicly belittling subordinates to taking credit for others’ work, the impact of toxic leadership is incredibly damaging to those on the receiving end. This is not surprising given the often volatile and cruel nature of the individuals who engage in this abhorrent behavior.

The negative consequences of toxic leadership are far-reaching, both psychologically and organizationally. Subordinates have been found to have higher stress, lower self-esteem, and increased alcohol abuse.(2) Those who experience toxic leadership are also likely to have lower levels of job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

Unfortunately, the impact of toxic leaders does not stop at the targeted individual. The “ripple effects” of toxic leadership has been found to extend to the subordinate’s personal relationships outside of work.  This is often in the form of increased partner conflict and greater work-life conflict.(3)

Perhaps more troubling, toxic leadership has been found to correlate with increased abuse toward peers and other team members at work.(4)  According to social learning theory, individuals learn to model the behaviors of others through observation. Because of their status, leaders play an important role in this social learning process.  The leader’s example then impacts subsequent workgroup behaviors.

The “Trickle-Down Effect”

In cases of toxic leadership, leaders who mistreat others set the example for the rest of the team that such behaviors are acceptable and appropriate in the workplace. Toxic leader behaviors then contribute to an overall climate of incivility and disrespect. The destructive behaviors “trickle down” to the rest of the team and become a catalyst for interpersonal deviance among the group members.(5)  Instead of nurturing a positive climate of work engagement, research show that toxic leaders set a negative example and create a context in which employees are less civil to each other. 

In the past 10 years, there has been a significant decline in civility in the workplace, including the growth of bullying. Christine Porath, a Georgetown University business professor, wrote an article in The New York Times about the decline of civility in the workplace. She said, “A quarter of those I surveyed in l998 reported that they were treated rudely at work at least once week…That figure rose to just over half in 2011.”

According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute,  35% of the American workforce (or 53.5 million people) has directly experienced bullying – or “repeated mistreatment by one or more employees that takes the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation, or sabotage of work performance” – while an additional 15% said they have witnessed bullying at work. Approximately 72% of those bullies are bosses.

When toxic leaders model negative behaviors, they create an atmosphere in which team members learn that disrespect and mistreatment are acceptable, tolerated, or even rewarded. With little or no other context for how to lead, junior leaders with less experience may model the behaviors of their toxic supervisor and perpetuate a culture of incivility. In such instances, toxic leaders create a cycle of disrespect that gives rise to a number of “bad apples” on the team. 

With a more comprehensive understanding of the damaging influence of toxic leadership, every effort should be made to reduce the likelihood of these destructive behaviors occurring in organizations. Measuring, monitoring, training, and coaching are effective strategies that can help to eliminate toxic leadership behaviors in the workplace.

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(1) Reed, G.E. (2004). Toxic Leadership. Military Review, July-August, 67-71, page 68.
(2) Lian, H., Ferris, L.D., & Brown, D.J. (2012). Does taking the good with the bad make things worse? How abusive supervision and leader-member exchange interact to impact need satisfaction and organizational deviance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 117, 41-52.
(3) Carlson, D.S., Ferguson, M., Perrewe, P.L., & Whitten, D. (2011). The fallout from abusive supervision: An examination of subordinates and their partners. Personnel Psychology, 64, 937-961.
(4) Mawritz, M.B., Mayer, D.M., Hoobler, J.M., Wayne, S.J., & Marinova, S.V. (2012). A trickle-down model of abusive supervision. Personnel Psychology, 65, 325-357. 
(5) Gallus, J.A., Walsh, B.M., van Driel, M., Gouge, M.C., & Antolic, E. (2013). Intolerable cruelty: A multilevel examination of the impact of toxic leadership on U.S. military units and service members. Military Psychology, 25, 588-601.

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