Are You Caught in a “Toxic Triangle” of Destructive Leadership?

All leaders have one thing in common: they have followers. Alone, leaders can’t get much done.

It is easy to understand why followers would want to collaborate with positive leaders, but why do some people go along with toxic ones? Why don’t more people confront destructive leaders or speak up when they know something is wrong?

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Toxic leaders create a negative climate at work – they ridicule people in public, force employees to endure physical hardships, and promote division among teams. They can inflict serious physical and psychological harm on their followers.

Paul Babiak’s recent book, Snakes in Suits, describes how functional psychopaths can fake it until they make it up the corporate ladder. With their skilled use of charm and manipulation, psychopaths are statistically over-represented in corporate America.

But responsibility for creating this toxic climate does not rest solely with the leader. Recent research suggests that a toxic climate depends on several factors in combination: the leader, conformers, and colluders – which together can build a “toxic triangle.” (1)

Members of the “Toxic Triangle”

  • Toxic leaders have high levels of narcissism, charisma, and a personalized need for power. Each of these elements is a necessary condition for a leader to be considered toxic. For example, a narcissistic individual without charisma may be driven by grandiose dreams but unable to recruit followers, and therefore not be able to achieve or maintain a leadership position. Similarly, charismatic public speakers with a benevolent worldview and pure motives are less likely to be considered toxic.
  • Conformers are those willing to follow a toxic leader, but not for their own personal benefit or gain. Studies suggest that those who conform to toxic leaders tend to have low psychological maturity, unmet needs, or low self-esteem. Individuals who are less psychologically mature have been found to be more susceptible or vulnerable to this type of authority. (2) Conformers don’t have much faith in their own abilities, so they believe they deserve to be treated with disrespect. In fact, they seek belonging and acceptance from the leader, even if that leader is toxic.
  • Colluders, on the other hand, see the potential for opportunity by following a toxic leader. Colluders tend to share the same negative values as the leader and, as such, are willing to implement and support the leader’s agenda. For example, in the aftermath of the Enron collapse, it became apparent that many Enron employees had assisted top management in implementing illegal and immoral business ventures. (3) Many of these employees were driven by their own personal ambition (seeing the potential for their own gain), as well as the toxic charisma exhibited by Enron executives.

Both types of followers support destructive leadership. Conformers passively allow toxic leaders to assume power because their immaturity makes them vulnerable to such influence. Colluders support destructive leaders because they want to promote themselves. Conformers try to minimize the negative consequences of not going along with the leader, while colluders seek personal gain through their association with the leader.

Identifying the conformers and colluders helps to distinguish between bystanders (who allow bad leadership to happen) and aides, or the “true believers” who join in the destruction. This has implications not just for business organizations, but for leaders in general, including teachers, coaches, and political candidates. It helps to provide an explanation for why some followers seem unable or unwilling to resist abusive leaders. For further reading, see The Trickle-Down Effect of Toxic Leadership.

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(1) Padilla, A., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R.B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. Leadership Quarterly, Vol 18, No 3, 176-194.
(2) Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. Harper & Row, New York, NY. 
(3) Fusaro, P. & Miller, R. (2002). What Went Wrong at Enron: Everyone’s Guide to the Largest Bankruptcy in U.S. History. Wiley & Sons, New York, NY.

photo courtesy of shutterstock.com



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