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Lead Your Team Managing

Toxic Leaders Offer Short-Term Benefits, But Long-Term Problems

Toxic Leaders Offer Short-Term Benefits, But Long-Term Problems
Credit: Peter Bernik/Shutterstock

When they are first put in charge, toxic leaders – those who use abusive behaviors to bully or control others – can be decidedly effective. However, despite these some short-term benefits, toxic leaders are likely to pose long-term risks to an organization, new research finds.

A study from the consulting firm Life Meets Work revealed that 68 percent of employees who work for an over-demanding boss who is more committed to advancing their own interests at the expense of their organization are highly engaged, compared to just 35 percent of workers reporting to nontoxic leaders. In addition, employees working for a toxic leader stay working for those bosses for an average of seven years, compared to just five years for employees who work for someone less demanding.

"One of the most fascinating findings of our research is that so many employees with highly toxic leaders report being highly engaged and staying with the toxic leader longer," said Kenneth Matos, the study's author and vice president of research for Life Meets Work, in a statement. "However, while employers might find short-term value in promoting demanding leaders, in the end, that proves detrimental to a long-term talent strategy."

After time, those initial benefits dissipate. The study found that 73 percent of employees working for highly toxic leaders said they are likely to leave their company within the next year compared to just 24 percent of those who work for a nontoxic boss. [Are you a toxic leader? 4 warning signs to watch out for]

Employees also have trouble balancing their home and work lives when working for an overbearing boss. The research shows that 70 percent of employees who report to a toxic manager have work-life conflicts, compared to just 27 percent of those working for helpful and kind bosses.

Employees also feel working for toxic bosses could be stunting their opportunities for advancement. More than 80 percent of those surveyed who work for a toxic boss suspect them of discriminating when assigning career opportunities, while just 8 percent of those working for nontoxic leaders feel the same.

Working for a cutthroat boss is pretty common in today's workplace. The study discovered that 56 percent of employees report having toxic workplace leaders who exhibit behaviors such as publicly belittling subordinates, having explosive outbursts and accepting credit for others' successes.

"They ignore ideas from others, micromanage events, hoard information, undermine peers and work to look good to superiors," Matos wrote in the study. "Employees tend to see highly toxic leaders as less ethical and respectful of nonwork commitments than nontoxic leaders."

The study cites previous research that estimates that abusive leaders cost U.S. employers $23.8 billion per year in absenteeism, turnover, legal costs and reduced productivity.

The Life Meets Work study found that toxic leaders are more common in high-stakes, win-or-die cultures. In these work environments, 63 percent of employees said their boss is highly toxic, compared to only 1 percent of those in low-stakes cultures.

"If work is perceived as a zero-sum game of winners and losers, then toxic leadership is a sensible strategy for presenting oneself as a winner," Matos wrote. "However, if an organization depends on long-term collaborative work to succeed, toxicity advances the leader at the expense of the organization."

Toxic leadership is not evenly distributed throughout all workplaces. The research found that employees who work for toxic leaders were more likely to work in industries and have training in fields that are stereotypically male-dominated.

Engineering, computer science, communication and business were the areas most likely to have toxic leaders, while humanities, health care and social sciences had the least.

In the end, toxic leaders tend to breed future overbearing bosses.

"By abusing subordinates, toxic leaders ensure there is no pipeline of potential, less-toxic replacements who could step up if they were removed," Matos wrote. "Given that toxic leaders seem to cluster in high-stakes cultures where ends may justify means, their organizations may have little obvious motivation to remove them."

Among some of the tips the study offers employers to address toxic leadership in their organization are to invest in leadership training, use outside sources to evaluate your culture and senior leadership, be supportive and understanding when working in high-stakes situations and build long-term goals into your reward structure to offset the short-term gains toxic leaders provide.

"Organizations interested in detoxifying their cultures and encouraging more mindful leadership must take a two-pronged approach, addressing both the highly toxic leaders and the culture that promotes this leadership style," Matos wrote.

"Well-developed employee training and succession plans are also essential, helping organizations develop the necessary bench strength to replace toxic leaders once they’ve been identified."

The study was based on surveys of 1,000 college-educated U.S. employees.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.