Toxic leadership: How can HR deal with destructive behaviours?

By Birgit Schyns

Navigating change can result in toxic leadership behaviour. How can this be avoided with best HR practice?

Some leaders can exhibit 'dark' personality traits which can cause harm to organisational culture, team or individual morale. That's why our online leadership and management courses help learners develop soft skills, such as self-awareness, to develop the emotional intelligence needed to lead in uncertain times.

HR practices might help to mitigate against ‘dark-triad behaviours’ and destructive leadership, writes Birgit Schyns, professor in organisational behaviour at NEOMA Business School.

Toxic leadership and 'dark personalities'

Dark personalities are always present in the workplace, whether we realise it or not. By ‘dark personalities’ we tend to mean those who embody the ‘dark triad’ of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. In this context, we are referring not to personality disorders but to traits that are normally distributed within the population; everyone has them to a greater or lesser degree.

What leadership traits are considered toxic or destructive?

So, how can you spot a colleague with a ‘dark personality’? While narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy differ in many aspects, they share a common characteristic: putting oneself first at the expense of others.

Narcissists, Machiavellians and psychopaths in the workplace

Typically, narcissists have an excessive belief in themselves and their skills (even in the face of evidence to the contrary), Machiavellians manipulate others to achieve their own goals, and psychopaths are callous and impulsive. 

Books such as Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule, and Snakes in Suits by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, point to the risks organisations take when hiring psychopaths; the same is likely to be true of those with other dark traits. Destructive leadership can have a big impact on organisational culture. 

What are the different motivations behind toxic leadership behaviour?

Within the workplace, you may notice that...

  • Narcissists strive for leadership positions because they enjoy the accompanying status.
  • Psychopaths also relish power, which they can use to harm others.
  • Machiavellians may be happy to remain in the background – as long as they are able to ‘pull the strings’. 

How can 'toxic' leaders negatively impact their teams with destructive behaviours?

As leaders, those with dark personalities can influence the culture of a team or an entire organisation, causing direct harm through their mistreatment of others, while developing an environment of fear. In positions of authority, they may also make unethical behaviour appear acceptable, creating followers and encouraging others to imitate their ways. 

When HR does not intervene to stop this, it simply becomes the norm, which is why NEOMA is conducting research into HR practices that might help to mitigate against ‘dark-triad behaviours’ and destructive leadership.

This includes taking a critical look at HR practices that might be ‘double- edged swords’. For example, a strong emphasis on individual performance might encourage excessive rivalry between employees, fuelling exploitation and abuse and creating a toxic culture of competition. 

What is the role of HR in addressing destructive leadership behaviours?

While this research is still in progress, it’s clear that we need to gain a clearer understanding of how destructive leaders and their leadership influence organisational culture — and the role of HR in addressing it. 

This is vital in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment; due to a lack of checks and balances, change seems to create a context that is particularly conducive to destructive leader behaviour. 

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Tags: Leadership advice, People management FTL, Diversity and inclusion FTL


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