Toxic leaders decrease Soldiers' effectiveness, experts say
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Toxic leaders decrease Soldiers' effectiveness, experts say
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WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 19, 2015) -- Having a toxic boss results in a 48 percent decrease in work effort and 38 percent decrease in work quality, said Dr. George Reed.

Reed, who is the dean of the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, spoke in the Pentagon, Oct. 15, at a Pentagon Chaplains Office-sponsored seminar, "Tarnished: Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Military."

"Those kinds of productivity impacts will get any enterprise leader's attention. Those are numbers not to be ignored," Reed said, regarding the two statistics, which were published in the April 2009 "Harvard Business Review," by authors Christine Porath and Christine Pearson.

In 2003, no one was talking about toxic leadership, Reed said. That's the year Secretary of the Army Thomas White asked what the Army was doing to assess, identify and deal with disruptive leaders.

As a result of White's inquiry, focus group discussions ensued at the U.S. Army War College, or USAWC, of which Reed was a part, as he was then serving as director of the Command and Leadership Studies program there.

Those discussions at the USAWC "resulted in stories that were like worms crawling out of a bucket," he said. "The stories of the way some of our best and brightest were treated by their superiors were completely inconsistent with a world-class organization."

It was that work that led to Reed to do research on toxic leadership and to speak about the heretofore taboo topic throughout the Army during the latter part of his 27-year Army career. He also wrote a book about the topic that was published this year: "Tarnished: Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Military."


Scholars don't agree on a definition for a toxic leader or even the term, Reed said. Most would agree, though, that such a leader displays two characteristics: an apparent lack of concern for the well-being of others, as perceived by those they supervise; and, an interpersonal style that negatively impacts organizational climate.

One scholar, Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, defined a toxic leader using a two-part test, Reed said: First, after an interpersonal exchange, does the target feel humiliated, belittled or de-energized by that person? Second, does that person anger people who are less powerful rather than more powerful?

Reed called the second of Sutton's two-part question the "kiss up and kick down tendency," where the toxic leader is very responsible and responsive to his or her supervisor but acts miserably to subordinates.

Reed then added a caveat. "Just because a person barks at you doesn't mean they're a toxic leader. In the Army profession, trying to make all of the people happy all of the time is a loser's game. But that aggressive behavior doesn't need to be the default setting."

There was an interesting case that Reed came across that he said he couldn't quite label toxic. There was an Army leader on his terminal assignment that "you didn't want to work for but you couldn't hate because he was trying to do the right thing. He was completely selfless."

That's still no excuse for toxic behavior, he added.

So how many toxic leaders are there? Reed didn't produce any numbers or percentages, but he did show a slide of leadership styles, illustrated with a classic bell-shaped curve.

To the far left of the curve were those few toxic leaders who are "awful, belittling, demotivating, destructive and demeaning." To the far right were those few leaders who are "wonderful, inspiring, motivating and constructive." Most leaders fell in the largest portion of the curve, the center. These leaders are "pretty good," he said.


The way young Soldiers often deal with toxic leaders is to get out of the Army, Reed said. Those who've been in longer than 10 years, however, with retirement just down the road, tend to stick it out, knowing that they or the toxic leaders will inevitably be transferred.

Not everyone who works for a toxic leader will decrease productivity, Reed said. "If you're a pro and a go-getter, are you going to stop what you're doing because you've got a bad boss? Of course not."

But for many who work for a bad boss, morale declines, communication degrades and stress levels go way up, he said.

In addition, people "don't go the extra mile" when working for a toxic leader. This is troubling because "we need people who do go the extra mile, especially in today's Army," where fewer people are being asked to do more with less and win in a complex world, he said.

Toxic leaders also inspire organizational cynicism, he said. "If you work for a bad boss, you tend to tie that to the whole organization, even though that might not be fair."

All of that stress takes a toll on the body, leaving Soldiers less resilient, Reed said. About 90 percent of all hospital visits are stress related. Research has shown that prolonged stress can lead to heart disease, cancer and other diseases and illnesses.

During the question and answer which followed Reed's discussion, someone asked him if toxic leadership can result in suicide.

"Suicide is a complicated issue," Reed said. "I'm unwilling to say there's a direct relationship between suicide and toxic leadership because there's so many variables involved. There are people that work for toxics that do not commit suicide. There are people who work for extraordinary leaders who do commit suicide."

More research is needed, he said, but there is one intriguing Army-commissioned study done by Dr. Dave Matsuda, who investigated suicides in Iraq.

Matsuda examined the linkages of relationships and the quality of those relationships between the Soldiers' leaders and the Soldiers who committed suicide. "In eight out of eight cases, there was somebody in that Soldier's organization that was making the person who committed suicide absolutely miserable," Reed said. A much larger study size would be needed to infer a direct correlation, however.

"We do know that one of the precursors to suicide is a degradation in relationships. And, we do know that toxic leadership has a degrading effect on relationships. So there's an indirect effect, meaning it could be a variable. It's worth studying more," Reed said.


To combat toxic leadership, organizations need to first come to terms with and acknowledge that it exists, and that there could be a problem from within, he said. Discussions by everyone in the organization need to take place.

"Once the light is shined on it, people can begin to talk about it. No one wants the badge of toxic leader," he added.

There's a myth in many organizations that "you need someone who's toxic to get people in line," Reed said. "We seem to have a band of tolerance for certain leadership styles that are not positively impacting our organization, and that could be the crux of the problem."

Holding classes on toxic leaders might seem like a way to reduce toxic leaders, Reed said. But the problem with that line of thinking is that a toxic leader won't voluntarily change. The boss of that toxic leader "needs to have a finger in their chest that says if you don't make behavioral change, you're going to fail," he said.

A look at performance appraisal needs to be examined as well, he said.

The military performance system and those of other organizations doesn't distinguish sufficiently between a good leader and a toxic leader, Reed said. "A lot of toxics seem to rise to extraordinary levels of responsibility. Some are so bad that they not only do not add value to an organization, they're also an impediment to the organization."

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