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SIOP Members Discuss Measurement, Antecedents, and Outcomes of Toxic Leaders

By Stephany Schings, Communications Specialist

As great leaders can create wealth and success for a company, destructive leaders can be equally as harmful. While the qualities and outcomes of good leaders have been widely researched, some SIOP members say destructive leadership has received relatively little attention—but it should.
SIOP members discussed various theories and research studies related to destructive leadership at SIOP’s annual conference this April during the symposium “Destructive Leadership: Measurement, Antecedents, and Outcomes.”
Measuring “Toxic Leadership”
Numerous studies have provided information on the outcomes of positive leadership, but despite recent attention, the outcomes of destructive leadership are largely unexplored, says symposium panelist and SIOP Student Affiliate Andrew Schmidt.
In his paper “Development and Validation of the Toxic Leadership Scale,” Schmidt, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, outlines his study of the effects of toxic leadership on employees. After collecting qualitative data from focus groups and interviews with military personnel in which participants were asked to recall specific instances of destructive leadership, the outcomes of the incident and the context, as well as following up with participants with a qualitative investigations, Schmidt found that toxic leadership accounted for 25% variance in job satisfaction and 49% of the variance in satisfaction with supervisors. Beyond this, toxic leadership had unique predictive power over these variables above and beyond transformational leadership and leader-member exchange.
“We measured employee satisfaction and turnover intentions and also asked employees to rate their leaders' transformational leadership behaviors and the quality of their leader-subordinate relationships (LMX),” Schmidt explained. “Multiple regression showed that when we controlled for transformational leadership and LMX, toxic leadership still significantly predicted employees' satisfaction with their supervisors, satisfaction with their coworkers, and their intention to leave the organization. This is consistent with a number of psychological studies showing that people are much more influenced by negative events, though they may be less frequent, than they are by positive events.”
Portrait of a Destructive Leader
Some studies and researchers have sought to measure and detect destructive leadership by looking at the character and personality traits of leaders. SIOP members Adib S. Birkland, Brian S. Connelly, Denize S. Ones, and Theresa M. Glomb, in their paper “Dark Side Traits as Drivers of Senior Leaders Misbehavior around the Globe,” discuss in their content analysis various types of misbehavior among executives and how they relate to what are known as “dark traits” in leaders.
Birkland, an assistant professor at the City College of New York , interviewed 129 senior leaders and executives from ten countries around the world—China, India, Nigeria, Turkey, Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Iceland and Colombia—to collect critical incidents of misbehaviors they have encountered. He recorded 500 critical incidents, which resulted in 700 examples of misbehavior, different behaviors that were considered to be wrong by senior leaders and executives.
Birkland then matched the specific misbehaviors to 11 “dark side” traits, identified by SIOP Fellow Robert Hogan, such as being mischievous and bold. These 11 traits are ones that can appear at first to be positive but then lead to negative behaviors, Birkland explained. In his research, he found that 61 percent of the critical incidents he coded had one or more dark side trait involved. Some involved multiple dark side traits contributing to a single misbehavior and some traits led to multiple misbehaviors. Those that did not deal with a dark side trait were mostly misbehaviors that were not applicable to the traits because they were not interpersonal problems, Birkland explained.
“The results of my study show with misbehavior from all over the world that dark side traits are related to senior leader misbehaviors,” Birkland said. “Although they don’t apply to all senior leader misbehavior, in many types they do. So if a company wanted to predict specific types of misbehavior that are specifically related to dark side traits, it is going to be very useful to predict future misbehavior amongst senior leaders.”
Birkland and his associates’ research referred to the “dark side” traits identified by Robert Hogan, president of the consulting company Hogan Assessment Systems. Hogan, self-identified as the instigator of the study of managerial incompetence, of which “toxic leadership” is a special case, said the term is a relatively new phenomenon, which he began researching in the 1980s. Hogan began studying what he refers to as the “dark side of charisma” in leaders and has since developed key traits of destructive leaders.
“All of these leaders have really good social skills, but they fall apart in three characteristic ways,” he explained.
First, he said, is that toxic leaders tend to be bullies who use intimidation to get what they want. Second, they use seduction and betrayal to charm people in to giving them what they want. Third, he said, they are over-controlling and micromanage.
“The biggest problem is that they are utterly self-absorbed,” he added. “They deny people their basic humanity.”
And these destructive leaders can be quite harmful not only to the organization, but employees as well, according to symposium participants Anders Skogstad, Guy Notelaers, and Stale Einarsen. In their paper, “Destructive Leadership: Behavioral and Attitudinal Outcomes Among Subordinates,” presented at the symposium, the group explains the outcomes of their study of Norwegian employees.
In a working population drawn from the Norwegian Central Employee Register, the group measured leadership behavior with a 22-item inventory including subscales for tyrannical, derailed, supportive-but-disloyal, and laissez-faire leadership behavior. The group then measured work withdrawal as well as job satisfactions and intention to leave the job.
The results showed that nearly 84% of the respondents had experienced one or more destructive leadership behaviors “sometimes” or more often during the last 6 months. Analysis of variance showed a moderate association between destructive forms of leadership and work withdrawal. Both supportive-but-disloyal forms of leadership and abusive leadership were significant and equally strong indicators of work withdrawal, while not reporting any sort of destructive leadership was associated with significantly less work withdrawal.
The Toxic Triangle
While some SIOP members have focused on various traits of destructive leaders, SIOP Member Paul Mulvey and Art Padilla, both professors at North Carolina State University, argue that “leaders” are only part of the problem of destructive “leadership.”
“Leadership is not a person, a leader is a person,” Padilla explained. “Leadership is more than just about a leader. It includes the followers and the checks and balances in the environment as well.”
Mulvey and Padilla have developed a model of destructive leadership based around this theory, which they refer to as the “toxic triangle.”
According to Mulvey and Padilla, environmental factors that can lead to destructive leadership include a lack of checks and balances on the leaders, instability, perceived threat, and cultural values that reinforce the values of toxic leaders. The two are currently working to develop quantitative analyses for their model to compare to other destructive leadership theories that measure leaders’ specific character or personality traits, Mulvey said. Padilla and Mulvey said they believe a more holistic approach will be able to better explain and predict destructive leadership.
“You can look at whether a leader is narcissistic, or doesn’t listen, but that’s not necessarily bad,” Padilla added. “There have been leaders before that have been obnoxious or narcissistic individuals but that didn’t lead to destructive leadership.”
One example Padilla gave is that of New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who became very popular for his service to the city during and after 9/11. However, once Giuliani showed signs of wanting too much power, his followers and checks and balances thwarted a destructive leadership.
“What Rudy was suggesting at one point was basically that he become the dictator of New York City,” Padilla explained. “But the institutions of the media came out and said ‘don’t get carried away’ and his followers said ‘no,’ so the system, the institution of checks and balances and the followers acted to say ‘no thank you, Rudy.’ So it prevented a potentially toxic leadership situation involving democratic transitions of elected officials.”
However, when more than one of the factors in the “toxic triangle” is missing, toxic leadership develops. One example in the corporate world, Padilla explained is Bernie Madoff, in which the leader had an urge to be destructive and the system of checks and balances didn’t prevent his criminal activities. Another good example, he said, is Adolf Hitler in Germany.
“Hitler came to power during turbulent times in Germany when political constituents, followers, were more susceptible to that leadership,” Padilla explained. Because the leadership, lack of checks and balances and susceptible followers were all present, destructive leadership resulted, he said.
But Hogan argues that in this case of destructive leadership, Hitler was entirely at fault.
“The German army was plotting to kill Hitler since 1938 because he wouldn’t leave the military alone,” Hogan explained. “They knew he was a destructive leader. They were sending messages to the British telling them they wanted to kill him.”
Padilla disagrees.
“If one argues that the leader is the main cause or the only factor, then one has great difficulty explaining why entire continents are in trouble,” he said. “…A broader, more multidisciplinary approach that considers history, economics, sociology, and politics would suggest that other factors are quite important aside from the traits of individual leaders.”
While the situation may give a leader opportunities to be destructive, Hogan maintains that the core problem is the leader himself. 
“Hitler ruined Germany, Mao ruined China, George Bush really did it to us,” he explained. “You can always point to one guy who really is doing things.”
Other members of the SIOP conference symposium, SIOP members Mo Wang, Robert R. Sinclair, Marilyn Nicole Deese and Junqi Shi, also discussed research related to environmental factors. The group hypothesized leaders who hold favorable views of destructive leadership or view it as “normal” would participate in it more frequently than those who do not. In their study, the group recruited a sample of 519 participants—soldiers and supervisors—from a Chinese military infantry company located in Northwest China. They asked the subordinates to respond to 44 behavioral items on a frequency scale. They then assessed the leaders’ views on destructive leadership. What they found was consistent with their hypotheses—those leaders with favorable attitudes toward destructive leadership and the extent to which destructive leadership behaviors were viewed as “normal” were both positively related to the frequency of those behaviors experienced by subordinates.
According to Padilla, his and Mulvey's broader "toxic triangle" model would include these sorts of organizational or political environments that make destructive leadership possible.
“I think the absence of appropriate controls clearly seem to be associated with toxic outcomes,” he said. “The point we are trying to make is that if you focus on the leader alone, you miss the larger picture.”