How to break the cycle of toxic management at work

Fascinating new research shows a clear pattern of behavior across industries. Here’s a look at how to curb toxic management at your company.

Kate Mulcrone

By Kate Mulcrone

a meeting

Toxic managers are a problem for every company, no matter its size. Whether these employees are driving turnover or simply stalling important processes, the impact is difficult to measure but profound. It can be difficult to root out these employees and motivate them to change – but it is possible to reform toxic management.

As part of Blueprint’s series on how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the way we work, we have highlighted advice from renowned business leaders and experts. An insightful article in the Harvard Business Review unpacks recent research about how toxic managers affect team and organizational dynamics.

University of Wyoming College of Business Assistant Professor Shawn McClean, along with Stephen H. Courtright, Henry B. Tippie Professor of Management at The University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, Troy A. Smith, an assistant professor of management in the College of Business at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Junhyok Yim, a Ph.D. student at Mays Business School, Texas A&M University, explore the impact even one toxic manager can have on an organization.

According to the article, the biggest problem organizations face is not identifying toxic managers but instead enabling them:

“Some bosses are skilled at looking good after an episode, leading employees and higher ups to forgive and forget — until the next tirade occurs and the cycle continues. If this is true, employees and organizations may be unknowingly enabling toxic boss behavior by being too forgiving of it.”

The 3 Traits of Toxic Managers

The authors worked with 79 managers who reported their interactions with their employees anonymously twice daily for 15 workdays through an online survey platform. In particular, the management professors were looking for three specific toxic behaviors:

“Specifically, each morning we asked supervisors about their abusive behaviors the day before by inquiring about whether they told their subordinates they were incompetent, invaded their subordinates’ privacy, or made negative comments about their subordinates to others the day before. At the same time, we asked the bosses how they felt their prior-day behaviors impacted their current moral and social standing. Finally, later that same day, we asked them how they subsequently behaved toward their subordinates throughout the day.”

a meeting with a toxic manager

Verbal abuse, invasion of privacy, and denigrating employees to their colleagues are all destructive behaviors that undermine trust – not to mention productivity. But perhaps the most frustrating revelation from the authors’ study is that the people fueling the toxicity in the first place are the same ones emotionally backpedaling or sending mixed messages:

“We found that when bosses reported having abused their employees, they viewed their social image as being damaged, with this effect being especially pronounced among those who reported at the outset of the study that it was important to them that they appear moral to their employees. In other words, among those bosses who were highly focused on having an image of adhering to a strict moral code, engaging in abusive behaviors, such as ridiculing employees, made them feel more concerned with their social image.”

“As a result, the offending bosses reported taking multiple steps to repair their social image. Specifically, they reported that they engaged in impression management behaviors, such as doing small favors for employees with the express purpose of getting employees to view them more favorably, while also engaging in self-promoting behaviors like highlighting how hard they work or showcasing past successes.”

“However, these bosses did not admit to engaging in behaviors aimed at genuinely repairing the damage done by the prior-day abuse, such as offering a sincere apology.”

“Hot and cold” behavior towards colleagues is inappropriate no matter what the setting, but these behaviors are especially problematic when they come from a place of perceived authority. Organizations that tolerate or enable managers who embody these toxic traits risk losing their best talent.

How Organizations Can Monitor (and Mentor) Problematic Managers

Companies great and small are investing in their workforce through diversity programs, specialized training, and wellness benefits. Most workplaces also have some sort of performance monitoring program designed to root out toxic employees and ensure that workers feel comfortable with their management setups.

But these programs can’t catch everything. Unfortunately, the authors have found that many organizations are unwittingly empowering bad-actor managers:

“In the end, our research offers a word of warning: by giving bosses a pass when they abuse employees but act nice afterwards, organizational leaders and employees end up reinforcing the cycle of mistreatment that pervades so many companies. Unfortunately, it appears from our research and that of others that toxic bosses don’t change as much as we would like them to — instead, the bad behavior tends to continue or, oftentimes, gets worse.”

One popular approach is to have bad apples take management courses or complete online programs designed to make them more self-aware and less prone to anti-social behavior at work. But the authors see limited value to these interventions.

“Even though abusive bosses may appear on the surface to be considerate to their victims following one of their abusive episodes, the bosses in our study reported behavior that was instead a superficial attempt at impression management. As a result, toxic bosses were not likely to change their ways, mainly because their focus was on covering up their bad behavior through manipulative ingratiation and self-promotion behaviors, not on actually changing their toxic behaviors.”

“Our research shows that there is little organizational leaders can do to break the cycle of self-centered, manipulative, and uncivil behaviors, other than implementing zero-tolerance policies for toxic supervisory behavior and consistently adhering to those policies, even when bosses appear to strive to make up for their bad behaviors. Sanctions, rather than forgiveness, are important, especially since past research has indicated that sanctions curtail abusive behavior.”

Toxic management would seem to be the one instance where organizations would do well to lead with the stick, rather than the carrot. Sanctioning offending managers or setting zero-tolerance policies not only curb abuses from managers, but empower their direct reports to push back against these taboo behaviors.

a toxic manager

What Toxic Managers Can Do to Improve Their Relations With Colleagues

“Sincere apologies and reconciliations on the part of the offending boss are the only sustainable way of regaining credibility and moving forward from a lapse in civil behavior. Further, engaging in these surface-level efforts to manipulate employees’ perceptions can be draining for supervisors; as such, acting genuinely is imperative. The best course of action for offending bosses is to be cognizant of their own motives and behaviors in the aftermath of an abusive outburst.”

“Some have recommended that bosses take time each day to reflect on their motives in order to stay motivated. Indeed, we urge the same type of reflection when it comes to behavioral lapses. If bosses take time each day to honestly appraise their own behavior and motives, and to carefully reflect on the impact of their behavior on their subordinates, they may be able to really make nice instead of fake nice in the wake of a transgression.”

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Kate Mulcrone

Kate Mulcrone

Kate Mulcrone has more than 10 years’ experience writing about travel, tech, and the workplace for a variety of publications.