By Ray Williams
November 11, 2021
Disagreeable, dishonest and toxic leaders can mean bad outcomes for organizations and work groups.
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters. Okay. It’s like incredible!” Donald J. Trump, former President of the United States, in January 2016 at a campaign rally in Iowa.
Political and business corruption and chaos in recent years has contributed to the interest in how the behaviours of these leaders and their followers are explained by “dark personality” factors.
However, new research highlights that the employees they work with also play a major role in this. Employee anxiety, self-esteem and how leadership behavior is perceived can all affect the leader’s influence on outcomes — and both followers and leaders can buffer against the effects of certain undesirable traits.
Dark side characteristics of leadership has been the focus of much recent research. The topic has increased quite a bit each year, with two-thirds of the publications of the dark triad appearing in 2014 and 2015 alone.
Scott Barry Kaufman, writing in Scientific American, examined “the dark triad of personality consists of narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit) and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism).” He adds “There is an emerging consensus that the ‘dark core’ (or so-called ‘heart of darkness’) of these dark traits consists of an antagonistic social strategy characterized by high levels of interpersonal manipulation and callous behavior.”
In my book, Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Ethical and Moral Leaders, I examine in detail how leaders with these dark personality characteristics have caused harm to people, their organizations, and even their countries, and what to do about it.
Published in Frontiers in Psychology as a special article collection on the “dark side” of leadership, the research can help organizations identify potentially problematic leaders or followers to reduce their negative effects.
“Surprisingly, not only leaders’ but also followers’ dark-sides have emerged as hindering factors for organizational functioning. We are moving away from the somewhat unidimensional view that leaders are omnipotent and solely to blame for negative outcomes in organizations,” says Susanne Braun of Durham University, UK, who co-edited the research collection together with Ronit Kark, based at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and Barbara Wisse, based at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, and Durham University, UK.
Leadership and followership are crucial aspects of organizational functioning and can affect our society at all levels. Studies integrating leader personality traits and styles, follower personality traits and behaviors as well as their contexts are rare — and most studies focus on good traits rather than ‘dark’ leadership or followership.
“In the wake of various scandals involving misbehavior of leaders and rank-and-file employees, more attention has been given to the dark aspects of leadership,” explains Wisse. “There is a growing awareness that the positive side of leadership and followership should be complemented by a focus on the darker side. There are also plenty of ‘grey areas’ in-between, where further insights are needed.”
The research highlights “Three Nightmare Traits” at the core of dark leadership: dishonesty, disagreeableness and carelessness. When coupled with a leader who is highly extroverted and low in emotionality, serious negative consequences for employees and organizations can occur, including absenteeism, turnover, stress and poor performance.
How the traits of leaders and followers interact to mediate these bad outcomes, an overlooked aspect in the past, is the focus of other studies. Using a range of techniques, ranging from experimental evidence to real-life observations, this research reveals that certain characteristics combine to produce different outcomes.
For example, followers with high Machiavellianism use all possible means to achieve desired ends, such as hiding knowledge or using emotional manipulation. However, this negative behavior can be effectively reduced by ethical leadership — leaders demonstrating appropriate conduct through actions and interpersonal relationships.
“Another study positioned followers as buffers to negative leadership,” says Wisse. “It found that when followers had higher self-esteem, leaders with psychopathic traits behaved less self-servingly.”
Employee self-esteem is also linked to how a leader’s behavior is perceived and the subsequent consequences. Narcissistic leaders were rated as more abusive by followers with low self-esteem and in turn, this was related to lower employee performance and the experience of burnout symptoms.
The nuanced impact of destructive leadership was also assessed. One study found, for example, that employees who feel abused by leaders have a higher urgency to leave the organization in comparison to those experiencing embezzlement and exploitative leader behavior. Another revealed that strict tyrannical leadership can lead to employee work-family conflict, which in turn is related to employees’ emotional exhaustion. Furthermore, this can be made worse if the employee suffers from anxiety.
The findings from this research collection will be useful to advise businesses and practitioners on what drives leaders and followers towards dark-side behaviors — as well as point them to potential remedies to the problem.
“A good start could be a positive organizational culture that buffers against negative leadership. Perceived accountability, organizational transparency, and values such as trust, respect and support can offset some of the negative effects a few individuals may have on the overall organization,” explains Kark.
Another approach could be to identify individuals with dark-side traits and prevent them from entering an organization. For example, the Three Nightmare Traits can be aligned with specific personality profiles. This can allow organizations to put specific actions in place to highlight problematic leaders and employees at various stages of their career.
“Diligence is required in early hiring and selection stages, when candidates with dark-side traits may seek to take control of the process,” she adds. “Structured interviews, work samples, and focus on actions and feelings can help to spot inconsistencies. Checking the facts through information from previous employers is a must.”
The dark-sides of leadership and followership will always be a natural part of an organizational reality that many employees face day in and day out. It is hoped this collection of research will encourage an integrative view of leadership and followership, leading to better outcomes for organizations and employees alike.
In light of corporate and political turmoil and subsequent questions raised about leaders’ dark sides, this research topic is particularly timely. We set out to contribute to theoretical, empirical and methodological advancements, focusing on dark sides of personality, processes, and perceptions, and how they relate to leader-follower relationships. Studies of the dark side of leadership follow a long-standing tradition, and initially focused mainly on negative leader traits such as narcissism and leader behaviors such as abusive supervision. The particular potential for toxicity to unfold at the intersections of leadership and followership has been noted, yet research into this domain remains largely underdeveloped. While followership theories receive increasing attention the potential dark sides of followership or followers’ impact on dark-side leaders remain unclear. Deviating from the unidimensional view that leaders are omnipotent and to be blamed for negative outcomes, we seek to place emphasis on the different “shades” of dark leadership by focusing on how dark leadership can be explained by taking leaders, followers, and their interaction in specific contexts into account.
Leader Traits and Behaviors
A paper by Reinout E. de Vries “Three Nightmare Traits in Leaders,” published in Frontiers in Psychology, reviewed personality traits and their links with dark leadership styles. The Three Nightmare Traits (TNT), leaders’ dishonesty, disagreeableness, and carelessness, were found to be aligned with low honesty-humility, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. De Vries argued that specific situations should attract TNT leaders, activate their dark-side traits, and result in (mainly but not exclusively) negative outcomes in relation to the recognition, perception, and attribution of leadership.
In addition, three other published articles gave primary attention to the question of what dark-side leaders do and how they affect followers at work and in terms of their personal lives.
Three different types of destructive leadership and their effects on follower outcomes were assessed in an experiment and a field study by Ellen A. Schmid and colleagues published in Frontiers of Psychology. Differentiating between distinct types of negative leadership their research focuses on follower-directed (abusive supervision), organization-directed, and self-interested (exploitative) destructive behaviors. All three forms of dark-side leader behaviors predicted followers’ negative affect. However, abusive supervision elicited the highest levels of fear. In relation to turnover intentions, exploitative leadership and abusive supervision affected calculative and immediate turnover intentions similarly.
In an article published in Frontiers in Psychology, Shazia Nauman and Colleagues extended the research to explore how dark-side leadership affects the private sphere of life of the employees. They assessed despotic leadership (i.e., tendencies toward authoritarian and dominant behavior in pursuit of self-interest, self-aggrandizement, and exploitation of others) and its negative effects, which the authors hypothesized would transcend from the workplace to subordinates’ personal lives (increased emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict, and decreased life satisfaction). The results confirmed their hypotheses. They show that negative forms of leadership can also affect our personal lives, homes and families and opens up a new field of research at the work-life interface. The work also connects with our second theme, the interplay between traits of leaders and followers. In this study, followers’ anxiety increased the negative impact of despotic leadership.
Birgit Schyns and colleagues in their article in Frontiers of Psychology extended the perspective from dark-side leader behaviors to follower perceptions and attributions of these behaviors. Comparing different levels of abusive behavior (constructive leadership, laissez-faire leadership, mild to strong abuse), they analyzed follower perceptions of abusive supervision and follower attributions as moderators. The three-study series employed manipulations of leaders’ abusive behaviors and established attributions of the leaders’ intentionality in the behavior and the level of his/her control as moderators. Relationships between abusive supervision perceptions and outcome variables (loyalty, turnover, and voice) were largely buffered by the attribution of leader intentionality.
The Interplay Between Traits of Leader and Follower
Looking at leader narcissism, Barbara Nevicka and colleagues analyzed the interface between self-absorbed, entitled narcissistic leaders and insecure follower, who make “easy targets” for narcissists. The authors whose work was published in Frontiers of Psychology conducted two field studies. Followers with low self-esteem and low core self-evaluations perceived narcissistic leaders as more abusive than those with high self-esteem or high core self-evaluations. Abusive supervision perceptions in turn related to lower follower performance and higher experiences of burnout, pointing to risks of leader narcissism for vulnerable followers.
Dick P.H. Barelds and colleagues also studied followers’ self-esteem, in their article in Frontiers of Psychology, in terms of how it affected the relationship between leaders’ psychopathy and their self-serving behaviors. The authors first conducted an experimental study, in which they manipulated follower self-esteem, measured leader psychopathy, and assessed their combined effects on leader self-serving behavior using an ultimatum game. They also conducted a multi-source field study using questionnaires to assess leader psychopathy, follower self-esteem, and perceived leader self-serving behavior. Across both studies they found that leader psychopathy was positively related to leader self-serving behaviors, but only when their followers had low rather than high self-esteem. Again, these findings show that that the degree to which dark-side traits of leaders are reflected in their behavior depends on the characteristics of their followers. Follower characteristics can mitigate the negative impact of dark-side leadership.
However, not only leaders’ dark-side traits pose risks to organizations; followers’ dark-side traits may do the same. Frank D. Belschak and collegues studied ethical leadership as a potential remedy for negative behaviors of Machiavellian followers and published their results in Frontiers of Psychology . They found followers with high Machiavellianism are goal-driven to the extent that they use all possible means to achieve desired ends. Machiavellianism predicted reduced helping behavior and increased knowledge hiding and emotional manipulation, but only when ethical leadership was low. That is, ethical leadership served as a buffer of the negative outcomes of dark-side followership.
How Leaders’ Positive Efforts Can in Fact Backfire
Petra Kipfelsberger and Ronit Kark, in their article in Frontiers of Psychology explained the conditions under which leaders’ meaning making efforts, despite their good intentions, can “kill” followers’ experiences of meaningfulness at work. The authors applied a wide angle taking into account leaders’ characteristics, followers’ characteristics and the context. They argued that leaders harm followers’ work meaningfulness when followers’ experiences of coherence, purpose or significance of work are diminished. The six conditions that can affect the reduction of followers’ sense of meaningfulness included in the model capture leaders’ personality traits, leaders’ behaviors, the relationship between leader and follower, followers’ attributions, followers’ characteristics, and job design. The negative consequences of diminished meaningfulness comprise cynicism, disengagement, and decreased well-being.
This recent research particular emphasis on the role that followers can play in dark-side leadership, whether through their own traits, implicit theories or attributions. Future research should add to the understanding of how leaders, followers, their relationships and the context interact within the dynamic of dark sides in organizations.
Moreover, future research can look into how negative leadership affects different life spheres of the followers, as well as of the leaders themselves, Better understanding the dark sides of leadership and followership is, so we believe, timely. Future research may decipher more unique and discrete types of dark leadership and followership, focus on toxic relationships and their consequences, and find ways to reduce the harmful effects.
Read my book Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Ethical and Moral Leaders.