Toxic Leaders and Toxic Cultures

(Rupert this cartoon is for you.)

Two more interesting blogs arrive in my in-tray recently.

The first was by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic Ph.D. who positions himself as Mr. Personality: The Science of Predicting Unethical and Toxic Work Behaviours

The second blog was by Emily Reynolds who is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest: People In Positions Of Power Are More Likely To Blame And Punish Others For Poor Performance

In the first blog Tomas argues that too many managers and CEOs are chosen for skills, assertiveness, and technical expertise, at the expense of their toxic and parasitic tendencies.  He argues that as psychological research has long highlighted integrity as one of the strongest and most consistent predictors of future job performance especially for management and leadership roles that should be the basis for selection. All recruiters and hiring manager will agree integrity is a critical leadership trait.  But if you ask them how we can actually measure it, they will be left rather clueless.

Tomas argues that it actually not that hard to measure integrity.  Scientific research has provided a wide range of tools and alternatives for determining a person’s probability to act with integrity, across different situations and relative to other people.  Among these tools are personality tests, intelligence tests, interviewing of direct reports, and past performance.  Tomas correctly notes that we overestimate our ability to evaluate it intuitively, or that we don’t care enough about the consequences of picking leaders who lack it.

Integrity in leaders refers to being honest, trustworthy, and reliable. Leaders with integrity act in accordance with their words (i.e., they practice what they preach) and own up to their mistakes, as opposed to hiding them, blaming their team, or making excuses.

The second blog provides a counterargument.  Based on three studies Emily argues that managers are more likely to see others as having more choice and, therefore, to blame them more when something went wrong — even if a reasonable explanation was given. This is not because managers just want to preserve their own position:  It is because managers believe that psychologically everyone’s position is related to choice, which implies they had reached their own position through merit and hard work.

The second blog says that those in positions of power should therefore carefully consider how much choice people actually have in different situations. Are people “choosing” to remain on employment benefits, or are they simply dealing with the constraints of their life and the world as best they can? If powerful people think more critically about when we really do have choice and when we don’t, it could avoid them unfairly blaming or punishing others.

I must confess I do not agree with either blog.  Toxic leaders are either corporate psychopaths or corporate bullies.  The first group are people with high GoGetter and low Regulator.  The second group are those with high Politician and low Regulator.  Combine the two together and you have a real problem.  On the other hand, lift the level of Regulator and give the person a moral compass through nurture and education and you will have a commercially realistic and decisive leader.

I have just finished reading The Mirror and the Light, the third book of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy.  If there ever was a toxic culture, the Court of Henry VIII rates right up there.  Henry is a terrific combined corporate bully and psychopath and how Thomas Cromwell rises become the second most powerful person in England is a riveting story.  Mantel is superb as she describes his thinking and handling of the nobles and the King.

I always remember what one of my mentors used to tell me If you can smile when things go wrong, you have someone in mind to blame.



Add Your Comment

Chris Golis - Author


"Put in a sales perspective, I loved your presentation! I got a lot from what you talked about and I will read your book."

Peter Morris, Executive Officer, Lomax Financial Group

Your presentation on 'Lifting your Level of Emotional Intelligence" to 10 CEOs scored an average 8.9 out of 10 for the topic and 8.5 for the presentation which is great. A couple of the attendees gave you a 10 out of 10, and the comments were:

- Great presentation. Very informative.

- Excellent presentation.

- made me think.

Christi Spring CEO Institute. - web