Toxic bosses – how destructive personality traits can infect a workforce

Abigail Phillips, PhD researcher in organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School, uncovers how research is showing how the ‘dark traits’ of bosses can become reflected in their workforce

Traditionally, organisational researchers have primarily been focused on identifying the qualities and traits of individuals that characterise effective leadership. However, there is an increasing consensus among scholars and practitioners that, to understand why leadership can sometimes result in destructive outcomes, we must focus on understanding the qualities and traits of individuals that characterise dysfunctional leadership styles.

Previous research has suggested that dark personality traits, such as narcissism, Machiavellianism or psychopathy –the Dark Triad –may be one such cause for dysfunctional leadership. As part of a research team at Alliance Manchester Business School, we explored the implications for employees and organisations across two of these traits – leader psychopathy and leader narcissism. Psychopathy encompasses traits relating to callousness, manipulativeness, impulsivity, and poor behavioural control, while narcissism is typified primarily by feelings of entitlement, grandiosity, self-love and a need for admiration.

Across our three studies, drawing on an international sample of more than 1,200 employees from a variety of different industries and organisations, we found that, as the levels of psychopathy and narcissism increased among leaders, so too did the prevalence of workplace bullying, counterproductive work behaviour, job dissatisfaction, psychological distress and depression among subordinate employees.

What was perhaps most interesting about our findings was that workplace bullying emerged as a mediating mechanism, through which leader psychopathy and narcissism seemed to affect employee job satisfaction, wellbeing, depression, and counterproductive work behaviour.

We know that bosses high in psychopathy and narcissism have a strong desire for power and often lack empathy. This can result in these individuals taking advantage of others, taking credit for their work, being overly critical, and generally behaving aggressively in order to achieve their desired outcome.

We also know, from previous research, that these individuals have reputations for being bullies, and are likely to engage in bullying behaviours more frequently than individuals low in psychopathy or narcissism. However, our results suggest that in addition to the negative consequences for their psychological wellbeing and job satisfaction, employees who find themselves in such a working environment are more likely to retaliate by redirecting their resulting frustration at either the organisation (resulting in more counterproductive work behaviours) or their fellow employees (resulting in an increase in employee-employee bullying as well as leader-employee bullying).

Our research highlights the need for organisations to consider the darker side of personality, particularly when selecting individuals for leadership positions. But, if organisations are able to implement effective interventions targeted at managing workplace bullying, then at least some of the destructive consequences of psychopathic and narcissistic leaders might be diminished.