Literature Review of Dysfunctional Leadership
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Published: Tue, 13 Mar 2018
Leadership is a strange paradox: the same behaviour can be either functional or dysfunctional depending on intent, motive, context and consequences. It can be seen as constructive by senior management and destructive, or even tyrannical, by subordinates. The same leader can be loved and hated in equal measure (e.g. Margaret Thatcher). The same power and symbols of office can lead to physical illness in some and provide intellectual stimulation in others. The same tactics that result in enhanced performance can also result in employee suicide (e.g. France Telecom, cited in Schumpter, 2009), which in itself is an amazing paradox given the amount of money and depth of legislation aimed at employee welfare in modern organisations. How then are we to understand such a complex phenomenon?
Gabriel (2004) suggests that dividing leaders into good and bad “is naïve” (p143) because effective leaders can suddenly fail and mediocre leaders can suddenly shine. He says that the factors that account for the difference between success and failure are innumerable and not all of them can be anticipated. Kets de Vries (2006) says that positive leader behaviours such as assertiveness, confidence and creativity are underpinned by a moderate measure of self-esteem whereas at the other end of the spectrum dysfunctional leadership behaviour, manifest in self-centeredness, grandiosity, lack of empathy, and exploitation, can have devastating consequences.
This paper examines the literature on dysfunctional leadership.
The literature on the subject of leadership is vast. Everyone has a view on what leadership is, but few agree on its definition. Despite more than half a century of research since Stodgill’s (1974) quip that, “there are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are people who have tried to define it” (p7), there is still dissensus around whether it can be taught, or whether its effectiveness can be measured, or predicted, and indeed whether it should be defined as person, or as result, or as position or as process (Northouse, 2010). Nevertheless, Northouse (2010) points out that there is some consensus around the view that leadership is (a) a process, (b) involves influence, (c) occurs in groups, and (d) involves common goals (p3). This suggests that leaders must know how to galvanise and mobilise a group of people and also how to direct them so as to achieve results without the use of threats or violence.
Although most of the literature focuses on what makes leadership effective and often presents leaders as paragons of virtue, there is ample evidence to the show that some of them often resort to the use of threats and violence to achieve their aims, for example, notable despots include Caligula, Joseph Stalin, Edi Amin, and Pol Pot. However, this paper is not about national despotic rulers who enjoyed inflicting pain and suffering on others, and whose ambitions caused misery and oppression and led to the death of millions. The focus of this paper is primarily organisational leadership. There is a small but growing literature that provides evidence of the destructive nature of some organisational leaders who achieve their aims by tyrannising their subordinates, for example “Chainsaw Al” (Al Dunlop, ex CEO of Scott Paper and later Sunbeam), and those who have a tendency to engage in abusive behaviour, such as Robert Maxwell.
Since Tepper’s (2000) systematic examination of abusive supervision there is growing interest in the negative behaviours in organisations and the effect of these on employee’s job and life satisfaction, and organisational commitment. According to Kets de Vries, (2001) it has long been recognised that the “shadow-side” of leadership can negatively affect other people in the organisation and even, in extreme cases, bring down the organisation itself. The literature on workplace stressors support this view and show that unhealthy work environments include, “those that threaten safety, that undermine the creation of social ties, and that are conflictual, abusive or violent”, (Taylor et.al, 1997). In a review of 75% of workers’ compensation claims in the USA, Wilson (1991) found that mental stressors were the main cause of absenteeism and 94% of those claims were the result of abusive treatment by managers. In addition, research on negative behaviour at work found that 5-10% of employees were subjected to bullying at any one time, and Unison (1997) found that 40% of participants had experienced bullying from a leader during their career. Lombardo & McCall (1984) found that of 73 managers interviewed, 74% had experienced an ‘intolerable boss’. More recently, Wu & Hu (2009) found that core self-evaluations were negatively related to abusive supervision, whereas abusive supervision was positively related to emotional exhaustion. Aasland et al., (2010) found that dysfunctional forms of leadership come in many different shapes. According to their research it is highly prevalent and constitutes a serious problem in contemporary working life (p449).
Burke (2006) suggests that rather than focus on what makes a leader effective, a more accurate definition of leadership might emerge by exploring the “dark-side”. He suggests that understanding destructive leadership could contribute to a better understanding of leadership’s effectiveness and development.
The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on destructive leadership. Taking a cue from Burke (2006) it is hoped a review of the ‘dark-side’ behaviours will enhance understanding of the phenomenon of effective leadership.
WHAT IS DESTRUCTIVE LEADERSHIP?
Tepper (2002) proposed that a variety of behaviours fall under the concept of destructive leadership, such as petty tyrants, bullies, derailed leaders, intolerable bosses, psychopaths and harassing leaders. His research shows that the concept is not limited to the mere absence of leadership, as suggested by the focus on effective leadership in the literature, but that what constitutes destructive leadership lacked an agreed definition which made it difficult to compare and contrast the findings of different studies.
The evolution of the term ‘destructive leadership’ can be seen in the various attempts of researchers to come to terms with the concept. For example, as far back as 1990, Kile (1990, cited in Einarsen et al,) used the term ‘health endangering leaders” which he described as leaders behaving to their subordinates in such a manner that the subordinates develop poor health. Ashforth (1994) talks of petty tyrants and describes them as those who “use their power and authority, oppressively, capriciously, and perhaps vindictively” (p126). In comparison, Hornstein (1996) focused on the notion of oppressive control of others. He says an abusive leader is “one whose primary objective is control of others, and such control is achieved through methods that create fear and intimidation”, and Tepper (2000) introduced the notion of social constructionism when he said that abusive supervision was, “subordinates’ perceptions of the extent to which supervisors engage in the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviours, excluding physical contact”( p.178).
More recently, Kellerman (2004) and Lipman-Blumen (2005) focus on the effect of destructive leadership on the organisation when they talk about corruption. For example, Kellerman (2004) makes the point that leaders can put their self-interest before the interest of the organisation and become involved in “corruption, lying, cheating and stealing”, and Lipman-Blumen (2005) includes the word ‘corruption’ when describing ‘toxic leaders’ as those “who act without integrity by dissembling and engaging in various other dishonourable behaviours” (p18), such as, hypocrisy, sabotage, and manipulation as well as assorted, unethical, illegal and criminal acts, in her list of behaviour that depicts a destructive leader. Wicker (1996) describes toxic leaders as “maladjusted, malcontent, malevolent and even sometimes malicious, succeed in tearing others down and glory in fighting and controlling rather than uplifting followers”. She says they create a tense working environment so much so that communication is stifled.
From the above it would seem that the term “destructive leadership” is a catchall phrase for all manner of misdemeanours in the workplace, and as such it does not help enlightenment. However,
Einarsen, Aasland and Skogstad (2007) propose a definition of destructive leadership behaviour that captures almost all of the above. They define it as:
“the systematic and repeated behaviour by a leader, supervisor or manager that violates the legitimate interest of the organisation by undermining and/or sabotaging the organisation’s goals, tasks, resources, and effectiveness and/or the motivation, well-being or job satisfaction of his/her subordinates” (p1).
This definition is particularly useful because it includes the individual and organisation, thereby acknowledging that destructive leaders can negatively impact both employees and/ or the organisation. Unlike previous definitions, this one is sufficiently broad to encapsulate Buss’ (1961) aggressive behaviours: physical and verbal, active and passive, and direct and indirect aggression. An example of passive-physical-indirect behaviour could be the failure to sufficiently protect an employee in a hazardous work environment (e.g. the construction industry), and an example of passive-verbal-indirect behaviour could be a leader failing to communicate important information such as the date of a meeting, or failing to provide feedback on something that needs attention (Neuman & Baron, 2005). The definition encapsulates Kellerman’s (2004) and Lipman-Blumen’s (2005) corruption by “lying, cheating and stealing”, as well as Sackett and DeVore’s (2001) ‘counterproductive workplace behaviour’, which they defined as illegal, immoral and deviant behaviours.
The words, systematic, repeated and legitimate are essential bedrocks in the Einarsen et al (2007) definition. Occasional instances of thoughtlessness and uncharacteristic behaviour are excluded by the definition’s clarification that the behaviour must be systematic and repeated. As a result there is little chance that the occasional ‘bad day’ (Einarsen, 2007) will lead to accusations of destructive leadership. To qualify as destructive the behaviour must be repeated and systematic and it must violate the lawful interests of the organisation.
In contrast to Tepper’s (2000) experience this definition allows for greater comparison between studies because it begins to be clear what destructive leadership is, and what it is not.
In addition to the definition, Einarsen et al (2007) propose a conceptual model of destructive leadership behaviour. This is congruent with their definition in that it encapsulates the two dimensions identified in the definition, that is, destructive behaviour directed towards employees and destructive behaviour directed towards the organisation. Most leaders are concerned with the welfare of their subordinates and they will not act destructively on either dimension- instead they will behave constructively towards subordinates and the organisation and the model reflects this by including a quadrant depicting constructive leadership. Shown in figure 1 (below) the model is called the Destructive and Constructive Leadership (DCL) model.
Figure 1: Model of Destructive and Constructive (DCL)
Source: Assland, Skogstad, Notelaers, Neilsen & Einersen (2009)
The DCL model is underpinned by Einarsen et al., (2007) assumption that leaders can act destructively on one dimension while acting constructively on the other. For example, someone who bullies and harasses employees can still act in the legitimate interests of the organisation. In the same way a leader can simultaneously be supportive of their employees while acting destructively towards the organisation.
The DCL model shows that leader behaviour can range from anti-subordinate to pro-subordinate and from anti-organisation to pro-organisation. According to Einarsen et al., (2007) pro-subordinate behaviour fosters motivation, job satisfaction and well-being, and pro-organisation behaviour involves setting clear and unambiguous goals, making and supporting strategic decisions and implementing legitimate organisational change. At the other end of the spectrum anti-subordinate behaviour involve behaviours like bullying, harassment, or other kinds of incivility and mistreatment of subordinates (p5). Anti-organisational behaviours include sabotaging the goals of the organisation, or stealing or being involved in other forms of corruption.
As the model shows pro-subordinate and pro-organisation behaviour is represented by the ‘constructive’ leadership element. Einarsen et al., (2007) suggest this can be described using the concepts traditionally applied to explain effective leadership, such as Blake & Mouton’s (1985) grid, which describes a concern for people and a concern for production, and Bass et al., (2003) transformational leadership.
Along with the constructive element, the Einarsen et al., (2007) model shows four categories of destructive leadership, three that are ‘actively’ destructive – tyrannical, derailed and supportive-disloyal-, and the fourth, which is situated in the middle of the model, is laissez-faire leadership. Since the focus of this paper is destructive leadership, these four destructive categories are reviewed below.
According to the model tyrannical leadership can combine pro-organisational and anti- subordinate behaviour. For example, tyrannical leaders can belittle, humiliate and manipulate their employees to “get the job done” (Ashforth, 1994) while at the same time displaying pro-organisation behaviours such as a strong focus on the task and the goals of the organisation. Ma et. al, (2004) argue that a tyrant’s behaviours include creating groups of insiders and outsiders, fomenting distrust within the group, using propaganda, and creating scapegoats whom they punish overly harshly as an example to others. They use the “best interests of the organisation” to justify their tyrannical methods, and according to Ma et al (2004) they sometimes achieve extraordinary results even when subordinates suffer.
An example of a tyrannical organisational leader is the aforementioned Al Dunlop, alias ‘Chainsaw Al’, former CEO of Scott Paper and later Sunbeam. When he started at Scott Paper he laid off 70% of the senior management and 30% of the workers in one fell swoop. He once, said “you’re not in the business of being liked…if you want a friend get a dog; I’m not taking any chances; I’ve got two dogs”, (cited in Kets de Vries, 2001). He produced extraordinary results for the shareholders in the short term. In the long term, six of the eight companies he was involved in no longer exist. Finally, his own board members fired him for creative accounting.
Bullying and Harassment
The tyrannical leader quadrant of the model includes bullying and harassment. The hallmark of the latter is that it is behaviour that is unwanted and it creates a hostile and intimidating work environment (Furnham, 2005), which can adversely affect a person’s productivity, whereas bullying is any form of behaviour (verbal, written or physical) designed to coerce, frighten or threaten staff- either as individuals or as part of a group. According to Furnham, (2005) bullying is usually unprovoked, continuous and aggressive. He says that basically bullying is “an abuse of power”. Both bullying and harassment are among the tactics used by tyrannical leaders.
Leaders who display anti-subordinate and anti-organizational behavior are shown in the DCL model as derailed leaders (Aasland et al, 2008). Derailed leaders are basically ineffective leaders in the sense that organizational goals, personal goals and team goals are not achieved within a prescribed time and manner. Conger (1990) defined derailed leadership as a “the dark side” of leadership when he described the typical behaviours of derailed leaders as bullying, humiliating, manipulating or deceiving – all anti-subordinate behaviours, while at the same time displaying anti-organisational behaviours such as absenteeism, fraud or stealing the organisation’s resources. According to Conger (1990) derailed leaders sabotage subordinate’s task execution by working towards alternative goals, and thereby actively prevent organisational goal attainment. Conger (1990) suggests that deficiency of strategic vision, communication and impression management skills can contribute to leadership derailment. Derailed leaders fail to cope with conflicts instead they pave the way to raise conflicts.
At the height of the ‘Great Man’ approach to leadership, Lombardo et al., (1988) research focused on personal characteristics and they suggested that the lack of positive personal traits and presence of negative traits were the main reason for leaders derailment, for example an inability to built a cohesive team; over or under managing; being overly ambitious; unsupportive; demanding of subordinates, and being insensitive, cold and arrogant are among the personal characteristics evident in derailed leaders. More recently Shackleton (1995) (cited in Aasland et al 2010), suggests that leaders who derail may have some formative experience as successful leaders but fail to learn from their mistakes. In such cases leadership is strongly influenced by personal negative traits, such as power-hungry behaviour, self-centeredness, isolated, non-communicative, coercive, ideology of hate, pessimistic thinking and having less interpersonal relationships with subordinates, as well as some environmental factors. Derailed leaders do not have mentoring capacity for their subordinates and sometimes fail to support them during their jobs.
According to Padilla et al., (2007) there are a number of causes for derailment including culture and background along with personal attributes such as, charisma; personalised use of power; narcissism; negative life themes and an ideology of hate.
A classic example of derailed leadership is Pevaiz Musharraf the ex-president of Pakistan. Pervaiz Musharraf was a bureaucrat. The manipulation of power was one of the basic objectives of his leadership, by which he wanted to achieve each and every objective by use of power. In this regard he took many decisions to extend his rule and try to force his personal agenda which was contrary to the welfare of general public and was not in the benefit of the country led by him. He lacked the knowledge, skills and abilities that are required to lead a nation. Lombardo and Eichinger 1989 (cited in William, Scott and Brennan, 2007) suggest that the derailed managers have a tendency to hold with the past habits as they wish to do things in their own way, which drive them away to adjust with new roles and to prepare for future. This was evident in Musharraf; the desire to extend his rule for unlimited period and to secure his position he took some decisions which failed to bring the desired results for him. But instead of learning from such mistakes, he repeated his mistakes which led to the situation where he not only lost his position but was also forced to leave the country and live in exile. As described by George and McLean (2007), “These leaders are unable to admit their mistakes for fear of being considered a failure or of losing their jobs. As a result of their inability to take responsibility for setbacks and failures they rationalize their problems away”.
Lipman-Blumen’s (2005) description of toxic leadership also falls into the ‘derailed’ quadrant because it includes anti-subordinate and anti-organisation behaviour. For example, she describes toxic leaders as:
“Toxic leaders are not garden-variety authoritarian bosses, nor dependable political leaders, nor overly strict parents, nor even difficult spouses about whom we all love to complain. Rather, toxic leaders are those individuals, who by dint of their destructive behaviours and dysfunctional personal qualities generate a serious and enduring poisonous effect on the individuals, families organisations, communities, and even entire societies they lead” (p2).
According to Lipman-Blumen (2005) a toxic leader intentionally and deliberately harms others or enhances themselves at others’ expense. An example of a toxic organisational leader would be Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom who lied, cheated, stole and wielded extraordinary power to subvert the goals of the organisation. Skilling and Fastow of Enron also displayed what could be termed ‘toxic’ leadership behaviours, which brings us to psychopathological leaders.
Corporate psychopaths fall under the derailed quadrant of the DCL model because they are anti-subordinate and anti-organisation. For example, Enron’s Andrew Fastow displayed many of the corporate psychopath’s traits. He pressured his bosses for a promotion to Chief Financial Officer (CFO) even though he had a shaky grasp of the position’s basic responsibilities, such as accounting and treasury operations. Suffering delusions of grandeur after just a little time on the job, Fastow ordered Enron’s PR people to lobby CFO magazine to make him its CFO of the Year. But Fastow’s master manipulation was a scheme to loot Enron. He set up separate partnerships, secretly run by himself, to engage in deals with Enron. The deals quickly made tens of millions of dollars for Fastow and prettified Enron’s financials in the short run by taking unwanted assets off its books. But they left Enron with time bombs that would ultimately cause the company’s total implosion and lose shareholders billions. When Enron’s scandals were exposed, Fastow pleaded guilty to securities fraud and agreed to pay back nearly $24 million and serve 10 years in prison.
Corporate psychopaths are sick. According to Goldman (2009) disorders underlying their behaviour include inter alia, attention deficit disorder; narcissistic personality disorder; passive aggressive personality disorder; obsessive compulsive disorder; borderline personality disorder; separation anxiety disorder, all of which are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). However, the symptoms of corporate psychopaths (also sometimes referred to as toxic leaders) often go undiagnosed until too late, as in Fastow’s case.
Corporate psychopaths directly affect organisational development because they tend to be disruptive to those around them, and especially to junior colleagues (Clarke, 2005). Corporate psychopaths display parasitic behaviour, for example, they claim others’ work as their own; they play groups off against each other; they neglect their own duties. All such behaviours are likely to reduce productivity in the workplace
They can go undiagnosed because as Goldman (2009) points out, there is a tendency to look the other way for fear of being accused of insubordination when dealing with the extreme hubris or excessive narcissism at the top of an organisation.
SUPPORTIVE- DISLOYAL LEADERSHIP
This quadrant of the DCL model describes behaviour that is pro-subordinate and anti-organisation. For example supporting subordinates while stealing from the organisation would fall into this category. According to Einarsen et al., (2007) it has some of the features of what Blake and Mounton (1985) termed ‘country club management’, because the main concern of a supportive-disloyal leader is establishing friendship with subordinates. However, it differs from ‘country club management’ in that the supportive–disloyal leader behaves destructively towards the organisation.
LAISSEZ FAIRE LEADERSHIP
Laissez-fair leadership is at the centre of the DCL model because it harms both subordinates and the organisation, (Hinkin and Schriesheim, 2008). For example, it violates the lawful interests of the organisation by stealing time and it undermines the motivation and job satisfaction of subordinates through lack of direction. As long ago as 1939, Lewin, Lippitt and White (cited in Einarsen et al, 2007), talked about the leader who occupied the position but abdicated his (sic) responsibilities. The theme was adopted by Bass (1990) who described this approach to leadership as ‘laissez-faire leadership’, that is, passive or avoidant leadership. The laissez-faire leader leaves the group alone to do whatever it wants, and most researchers consider this to be an abdication of leadership. Research suggests that laissez-faire leadership fails to produce positive results for the group in terms of either performance or satisfaction. Worse than that, it engenders a malaise in the organisation that is manifest in buck passing and delays, the absence of any meaningful interaction and communication among managers. According to Kets de Vries (2001) an avoidant culture is is characterised by passivity, lack of confidence, extreme conservatism, insularity and purposelessness.
Enron’s ex CEO, Ken Lay, was a typical laissez-faire leader. His hands off approach left him “clueless”, according to whistleblower Sherron Watkins. Cited in Truglia, (2008) she went on to say that “clueless is far worse than toxic because at least with toxic you can begin to predict behaviours…crooks are much easier to deal with than fools”.
There is little doubt that the DCL model lends weight to the definition of destructive leadership, proposed by Einarsen et al., (2007). It shows that there is more than one type of destructive leadership behaviour. It differentiates the behaviours. It provides a framework within which to examine the behaviours. It includes behaviours directed towards subordinates and towards the organisation. It shows that destructive leaders can behave destructively and constructively simultaneously. Therefore, as Burke (2006) suggested, an examination of the literature on destructive leadership within the framework of the DCL begins to shed light on the paradox of the leadership.
From a critical perspective, although the model provides a greater degree of clarity than Tepper (2000) enjoyed, there is considerable overlap between the behaviours. In addition, the behaviours themselves tend to be treated rather superficially, for example there is no consideration of the negative impact on the organisation of the psychological impact of bad behaviour on a subordinate; an impact that will hit the bottom line sooner or later.
The model does not discuss intent to harm because Einarsen et al (2007) view destructive leadership as being more about behaviour than intent. Not all misbehaviour at leadership level is unintentional. On the contrary it could be argued that a high degree of tyrannical behaviour in intended to drive the share price up through whatever means. It is suggested that this is a serious omission warranting future research.
While some of the authors cited in this literature review hint at the antecedents of destructive behaviour (e.g. Conger, 1990) there is room for further research in this area also. The question remains, where tyrant’s always thus, or did the situation contribute something to their mistreatment of their subordinates, and if so what?
Destructive leadership behaviour has certainly added light to what effective leadership looks like.
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