The dark side – surviving destructive leaders.

Jeff Salter

“I’ve seen her go through four seasons of emotional states in four minutes. She just kind of goes from being interested to crying to shouting to… I just don’t know what to do”

“Don’t put yourself in a position where you’re going to bite because he’s a dangerous person, and he will just get you so upset that you can’t possibly communicate with him; at which point, he’s won”

If you are on the receiving end of this type of behaviour at work, I probably don’t need to dwell too hard on the feelings and emotions that this conjures up. But dark side leaders and the dysfunctional behaviour that emanates from them is difficult to confront for three main reasons:

  • They hide. Dark side leaders are initially hard to spot. And can improve their behaviour when it is advantageous for them.
  • They’re allowed to behave badly. They often have willing (if often unconscious) accomplices.
  • They (sometimes) deliver results. They often do a good job in the main areas of work that matter to the organisation or their bosses.

Did they really do that? Variously described as toxic (Padilla et al, 2007), narcissistic (Rosenthal and Pittinsky, 2006), tyrannical (Ma et al, 2004) and destructive (Einarsen et al, 2008), dark side leaders can come in various flavours, but they are initially hard to spot, especially at the recruitment stage. Dark side leaders can initially present as inspiring, focused and enabling, for example. But when the honeymoon period is over and tougher times ensue, stress can activate the corresponding negative tendencies to those qualities; inspirers begin to overwhelm, leaders with focus become obsessive, skilled enablers can begin to abdicate responsibility and so on. They are also quick learners in the field of getting away with things. They ascertain when, where and with whom they can behave in certain ways. This often creeps up slowly on unsuspecting organisations and at the selection stage, many struggle to identify which candidates might possess fatal flaws that might eventually overwhelm any potential qualities they also display.

It’s not so bad. Leaders need followers and contexts to operate within. This is where the ‘toxic triangle’ emerges (Padilla et al, 2007) where dark side leaders, susceptible followers and conducive environments can meet in an unholy alliance. Conformers might not care enough or be strong enough to withstand the onslaught. Colluders might look to further their own ambitions and recognise the leader as a potential support. The whole organisation might be going through its own separate ethical or identity crisis. So people agree with the boss rather than be ostracised, idealise charisma and / or any successes and ignore or downplay any negative behaviours when they start to emerge.

Can they change? Not all dark side behaviours are intentional. Petty (2011) recognises some leaders would wish to protect their organisations but lack a vital component in their personality or abilities, be it moral, operational or being unable to anticipate unpredictable events which may derail organisations. However, many dark side leaders receive substantial psychological or actual rewards for their dysfunctional behaviour – so change is sadly unlikely. Leaders must possess the capability, insight and humility to recognise and accept the need for making such changes.

So what can you do when one is in your midst?

  1. Triumph in adversity: there are many examples of teams being galvanised by their common experience, finding their voice and reducing or nullifying the destructive threat of such leadership.
  2. Fight for process: developing internal networks that oblige leaders and employees to explore work processes as well as tasks. This can encourage a culture of honesty where dark side leadership is less likely to flourish.
  3. Don’t be seduced at the outset: dark side leaders gain access to organisations because their initial identification can prove elusive, their emergence is slow and imperceptible and they invariably display associated positive qualities which are particularly attractive in the right prevailing conditions. Consider how your organisation’s culture, selection, training and values has contributed – and plan to change.
  4. If all else fails – leave. Your health and wellbeing matter too much.

(quotations used with permission)