A Vice President performing an HR function would regularly pass his work down to subordinates, then, take single-handed credit for it. A supervisor behaved so meanly and rudely to employees that some ended up crying. She then threatened to retaliate if they complained. A newly appointed senior director of an IT function disciplined any employee who attended a meeting without his permission. When his people complained about his need for control, he wrote them up for resisting change. A senior partner in charge of a financial professional services group routinely could be heard telling junior staff to “Get the F___ out of my office.”
Sadly, all of the above leaders continued in their positions for years, long after their organizations had first heard of the unacceptable behavior. I wrote about common excuses for keeping such leaders in a previous blog. In this one, I’ll focus on the consequences to an organization of retaining bad leaders.
Behaviors such as those described above not only dampen employee morale, but they ultimately hinder bottom-line performance. In fact, I completely believe that if organizations truly understood the widespread damage, the behavior wouldn’t exist. That is, these people would promptly be removed from their positions. Let’s look at some of the toxic effects of such behavior.
- Negative effects on culture. Culture is loosely defined as the ‘way we do things around here’. Employees experience culture and also create it on a daily basis. When a leader is allowed to act inappropriately, the message given to employees is that poor behavior is accepted around here. Even worse, sometimes these managers are promoted sending the message that it actually helps you get ahead in the organization! Some employees will take this cue and begin to exhibit the same poor behaviors. Other employees may decide that this is an environment they do not wish to work in. Still others may simply become apathetic and disengage.
- Disengaged employees. Leaders who exhibit poor behavior have a negative effect on employees emotionally and behaviorally. The field of neuroscience tells us that the brain interprets being treated badly much in the same way it interprets being under physical attack. That is, the fight or flight hormones come charging out in the same way they would if a Doberman Pinscher were barking and running toward us. The person then decides how they are going to escape the situation or fight it. Further to this, these individuals spend time worrying and may reach out to colleagues for confirmation, help and support. Now other employees are involved, gossiping and taking sides. Creativity, productivity and focus are all lost in this environment.
- Increased turnover. The worst part about this turnover is that it tends to be the high performers who leave. There are obvious financial costs associated with needing to hire and train new people. This has been well documented. But often areas that are overlooked are the loss of continuity in the work caused by the loss of relationships that people had with others (e.g., customers, vendors, patients, clients, or other employees), the loss of institutional knowledge and the impact on the workload of others.
- Breakdown of trust and goodwill. Most of the organizations I’ve worked with have some kind of value statement to the effect of, “We value our employees” or “Our employees are our greatest asset.” However, when unacceptable behavior occurs without reprimand, such value statements become a symbol of hypocrisy of leadership. In other words, employees see the mismatch between words and behaviors. A client once said to me, “I am not surprised by the poor behavior of this individual, but what I am surprised by is that our CEO allows it.”
- Reputation damage. Disgruntled employees can spread the word far and wide about the organization to large audiences quickly and damage reputations. Some employees have great relationships with clients and customers, and may run the organization down, creating a loss in revenue as well as damaged relationships. Further, in the past, employees may have complained to their family and friends, but now they can also turn to social media, and in an instant create trauma and negativity for the organization. Who wants to deal with an organization that is toxic?
- Decreased creativity. In my experience, a large amount of creative energy and productivity is lost in an environment with a bad leader. Instead of positively and energetically working, employees spend a lot of time engaged in complaining, jockeying for positions and other dysfunctional behaviors such as passive aggressiveness.
Organizations have a responsibility to hold people accountable for disrespectful behavior. Not only is it the right thing to do, it happens to be the smartest thing they can do!