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You’ve seen these types in the workplace, right? Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey) from the movie Horrible Bosses. Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) in the film Working Girl. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) from the movie Wall Street. Some executives make Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) from Office Space and Michael Scott (Steve Carell) from The Office look like a blessing. Examples from movie and television aside, we have all witnessed some form of destructive leadership. How do you identify early warning signs? And is there a remedy?

horrible_bossesLeadership is a catchy yet ambiguous concept. We try to categorize an organization’s leaders by various types. One trendy type we hear about often is servant leadership; leading through the service to others. What has not been recognized until relatively recently is another, more detrimental, leadership style. This style overpowers other leadership styles and could be extremely damaging to an organization. This dark side of leadership has been coined as destructive leadership, and can destroy organizations. Helping your employees to become more self-aware might be the key to mitigating harmful leadership behaviors.

Leadership theories allow us to understand the purpose of leadership, the types of leadership styles, and most importantly, the instances when a leader becomes destructive. This sort of destructive leadership tends to evoke fear and coerce respect from subordinates and, as the manager hopes, drive productivity. Originally, it was used with intent because it was thought to be effective. Shockingly, this style is still seen in many companies. Infamous failures of corporate leadership include the ethical downfalls of Enron, Worldcom, Anderson, and Adelphia.

Another company is Volkswagen; the company’s management has recently been under scrutiny for cheating on emission tests. Following the disclosure of this cheating, the CEO resigned. This, in turn, brought attention to the types of management styles at Volkswagen, which have been described by employees as “a special pressure.” As the business world becomes more connected, globalized, and extremely competitive by extension, businesses are increasingly under pressure to perform, deliver, and remain viable. Not surprisingly, leadership too often engages in unscrupulous behavior and the abuse of leadership power is more widespread than people are willing to admit.

According to a paper from The Enneagram Journal, two personality markers that may play into destructive leadership are need for achievement and need for power. Need for achievement involves the intrinsic motivation to meet goals and accomplishments. Need for power stems from the desire for control over outcomes as well as control over others. To describe further, the need to achieve and the need to control, combined with time pressures, can cause leaders to engage in destructive behaviors.

One way to identify destructive leaders before they become a problem in your organization is to note these hallmark personality characteristics. In a paper from The Leadership Quarterly, Dr. Robert Hogan developed a personality exam, comprised of three core clusters of personality traits: motives, values, and preferences; day-to-day personality characteristics; and, risks of derailing behaviors. The assessment provides a comprehensive personality review of individuals, as well as teams.

Among multiple traits, Hogan Assessments measure two dimensions previously mentioned; need for achievement and need for power. Individuals who score in the ‘high’ category for both power and achievement on the Motives, Values and Preferences Inventory may be prone to destructive leadership, if unchecked. Interpersonal sensitivity, which involves a person’s ability to understand how others are feeling, can be problematic in excess or at scarcity. Destructive leaders with high interpersonal sensitivity may be aware of how others are feeling, yet continue to treat them poorly. Destructive leaders with low interpersonal sensitivity may be completely unaware of others and be more self-interested.

The Hogan “Derailers” portion of the assessment includes traits such as “bold” and “excitable.” Bold traits have to do with the tendency to overestimate one’s own abilities, blame mistakes on others, and have an inflated sense of entitlement. Excitable traits speak to an individual’s volatility in their environment. For example, someone with ‘high’ excitable scores may be more likely to become easily annoyed with others, or appear as moody or irritable and hard to please. This cocktail of personality traits will be most exaggerated in destructive leaders. 

One way to handle destructive leaders is to be self-aware of the situation. Narcissists and those who scored high on the psychopathy/sociopathy scales naturally lack self-awareness capabilities.1 Some of the most destructive and unethical leaders in history were charismatic, but they used their charisma for malicious purposes instead of virtuous.6 Leaders could also practice self-awareness. In order to do so, leaders always have to perform a self-check, asking themselves what their goals and methods are, what their ethical stance is, and what their morals or values are. The question is whether they would care to do so.

Receiving an in-depth review of a Hogan Assessment allows individuals insight into their own motives, values and working styles. Feedback sessions with leaders focus on their personal management style and how they work best with other personalities. Simply discussing and receiving this feedback brings about a sense of self-awareness that can thwart the onset and continuance of destructive leadership.

Self-awareness is one approach to deal with destructive leadership successfully. Self-awareness in employees will be a more effective way to deal with destructive behavior than self-awareness in destructive leaders. This is because, due to some characteristics, destructive leaders might not benefit from self-awareness, could be incapable of it, or might not use it in a way that would be beneficial to their employees.