Don’t be overthrown: why rooting out bad leadership behavior is crucial for business

Don't be overthrown

Earlier this year, Forbes published research with the London School of Economics focusing on an all too common form of employee mistreatment, ‘supervisor social undermining’ defined as ‘when a supervisor intentionally tries to hinder an employee’s success at work, interfere with their ability to maintain positive work relationships and attempts to tarnish their reputation’. Surely, those bosses are the exception? Surely, they’re caricatures, like Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada? Yet, most of us have at some point in our careers crossed paths with such bosses – inconsistent, micro-managing, self-promoting, authoritarian – leaders branded as exclusive.

During lock-down, their employees will have experienced the relief of working remotely and subsequently realized the extreme negative impact some behaviors have had on their day-to-day-lives. Research shows that 50% of employees in the UK quit their jobs to get away from their toxic bosses. In the US, 57% of people leave their jobs ’specifically’ because of their managers. With some employees heading ‘back’ to the office and others adjusting to longer-term remote work, organizations have the opportunity to take forward the culture they aspire to have, starting by defining the inclusive leadership behaviors organizations need to cultivate.

Game recognizes game

‘Traditional’ leaders like this tend to cluster together, attracting others who share their approach, and can even eventually transform the culture around them. We know that the vast majority of employees experiencing highly toxic leadership¬ also report that their leader is typical of their organization. These cultures often cultivate a ride-or-die mentality, which demands a show of constant loyalty and subservience.

We see this scenario repeatedly with the current spate of news reports about bad leadership leading to undue pressure on employees.

The most notorious example is Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and its top-down leadership which expects employees to fall in line. Among the various scandals of the last 18 months, many employees have spoken out against a performance review system which creates a culture discouraging dissent, rather than encouraging speaking up. A few months ago, after Facebook refused (unlike Twitter) to flag Trump’s posts regarding the ongoing protests against racism and police brutality in America as ‘glorifying violence’, more employees began to protest and resign.

In the UK, the law specialist Slater and Gordon published a study – surveying 2,000 people who worked remotely during lock-down, showing that more than a third of women were asked by their employers to put on moremake up or do their hair; 27% were asked to dress more provocatively. A third of both men and women said that they tolerated remarks and demands that they wouldn’t have done before the instability and risk of recession created by Covid.

There’s a real danger that toxic leaders will thrive in the atmosphere of uncertainty and feed on employees’ fears about job security, making it more important than ever to uproot those leaders now. The longer this has been embedded in an organization, the further their venom will have crept into the infrastructure, so firing the individual isn’t enough; the next-in-line will simply emerge to fill their space and maintain the status quo.

How do you neutralize the poison?

1. Invest in inclusive leadership development

You can start with the best intentions, but building an inclusive culture requires a strategic approach. Inspiring an inclusive mindset at the top of an organization will have a trickle-down effect. Starting a dialogue which raises both understanding of inclusive behavior and awareness of how the working culture impacts the people within the organization will lead to greater empathy and stronger teamwork.

2. Create a safe space for leaders to hear truths

Providing a structure for groups to talk openly with their leaders and work together creatively is crucial. Lived experiences that may feel too complex and issues that might seem ‘too sensitive’ become shared challenges which everyone has a stake in approaching them positively.

3. Develop explicit behaviors for leader conduct: If behaviors are challenged early, and often, then they won’t be able to take root. If one person speaks out, they might seem petty, but if others actively commit to challenging inappropriate behavior, they’ll have power. Good leaders with the courage to collectively confront bad behavior will be able to craft cultures which encourage the best from everyone.   

4. Reinforce appropriate behavior with the reward structure: Beware of performance improvements which are clearly accompanied by reduced employee wellbeing. Conduct regular employee engagement surveys to keep an eye on this and link bonuses and other rewards to continuous growth and employee wellbeing rather than rewarding large but unsustainable spikes in performance.

Building an inclusive culture requires acknowledging the gap between how inclusive you think your organization is and how employees experience it. The only way to bridge that gap is to listen. Gradually, as people across the organization communicate openly and with intention, inclusive behaviors become embedded, and the culture follows.