For most of us that question is too painful to confront. Our fear of losing income, reputation or self-esteem edges us into compromises that damage our hearts and souls. We are willing to bear these burdens and accept these scars because the alternatives frighten us too much. How can I sacrifice my family’s wellbeing or feed my children if I’m constantly marching away from positions that upset my fragile moral frame of reference? Life is hard, so I just need to put up with my bullying boss ... right? And it is true: many leaders suffer from some degree of toxicity.
Bullying and Commanding
Bullying involves things like unfair treatment, public humiliation and other forms of threatening behaviour. While some bullying is straightforward, other behaviours can be subtler yet still create toxicity. These include undermining one’s position or responsibility, falsely taking credit, spreading rumours and half-truths, and social ostracism.
Whenever a leader commands, the power dynamic shifts and can become problematic. There is a thin line between commanding and bullying. Bullying can involve shouting, swearing, name-calling, malicious sarcasm, threats to safety, or actions that are threatening, intimidating, humiliating, hostile, offensive or cruel. To cement their position, bullies evaluate performance unfairly, deny advancement, steal credit, attack reputations, give arbitrary instruction, and even assign unsafe work. They can interfere, sabotage, undermine, and encourage failure. The underlying phenomenon often identified as workplace bullying can result in physical as well as emotional and psychological disorders, including a diagnosis such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Toxic Ambivalence: Toxic leadership does not necessarily require intentionality—it can be accomplished quite effectively as a sin of omission rather than commission. Simple ineptness and rank incompetence breed toxicity in their own way. Followers experience frustration where managers do nothing.
It is easier to recall occasions when we have been bullied than it is to remember when we have done the bullying. In the midst of enthusiastically cataloguing the various injustices that another leader may have perpetrated on us, we might need to work through our own “due diligence” and explore our personal capacity as leaders for battering followers.
Once aware of our problem, most of us will hopefully seek a solution, recognising that self-regulation is part of our job as a leader. However many leaders still refuse to confront the signs of toxicity and instead assault their followers until they are stopped or retire. Without this honest appraisal we have no right to complain about those who batter us.