From Destructive Leadership to Destructive Followership: A Conceptual Model.

AuthorSingh, Sweta


Leadership is one of the most over-researched areas of social sciences (Gardner et al., 2020), evolved with a series of 'school of thoughts', the scientific study of which dates early 1930 and onwards (House & Aditya, 1997). Interestingly there is no consensually agreed-upon definition of leadership among scholars. Definitions vary in terms of emphasis on leader abilities, personality traits, influence relationships, cognitive versus emotional orientation, individual versus group orientation and appeal to self-versus collective interests. Traditionally, leadership research has considered leadership as a positive phenomenon and the attributes associated with a leader focused on personality variables all exclusive of 'desirable', 'good' and 'effective' characteristics (Yukl, 2006). There is no escaping the fact that the leadership literature has focused on constructive, successful leadership over the years. Still, the recent stream of research suggests a dark side of a leader too (Schmid et al., 2018).

Contrary to popular belief, some leaders, rather than behaving in stereotypical 'ideal' manner, behave in manners that are detrimental to followers and organizations. The potential effect of destructive leadership on individual followers are pretty severe and, in extreme cases, results in job tension, burnout, emotional exhaustion, intention to quit (McCallaghan et al., 2019), reduced family well-being (Hoobler & Brass, 2006), and deviant work behavior (Schmid et al., 2018), to name a few.

The literature on destructive leadership is relatively early, and the research and theory development addressing destructive leadership is underdeveloped (Einarsen et al., 2007). The basis for better understanding is yet to be explained. Research in this area lacks both integration of diverse concepts and review of its consequences, and a theoretical model of destructive leadership explaining the underlying relationship between destructive leadership, its antecedents and its consequences are scarce. Further, followers' reaction to destructive leadership has been under-explained (Yukl, 2006) and has much been reported as a linear function to leaders' behavior. This review addresses a few of the above limitations.

The Destructive Leadership

Tepper (2000) documents that leaders may actively and intentionally behave destructively towards subordinates and the organization as a whole. Within the domain of destructive leadership arguably fall several concepts which include, 'dark side' of leadership (Conger, 1990), abusive supervisor (Tepper, 2000), derailed leaders (Shackleton, 1995), psychopaths (Furnham & Taylor, 2004), to name a few.

Einarsen et al. (2007) defined destructive leadership as "the systematic and repeated behavior by a leader, supervisor or manager that violates the legitimate interest of the organization by undermining and sabotaging the organization's goals, tasks, resources, and effectiveness and/or the motivation, well-being or job satisfaction of subordinates." According to the definition, all physical and verbal repeated behaviors lead to destructive leadership. This eliminates isolated misbehavior or an outburst of a leader, which could result from any 'bad day' or by chance. Only when a leader repeatedly acts aggressively or sustained hostile behavior qualifies a leader to be destructive.

Little effort has been made to show the relationship between the reasons and consequences of destructive leadership. Further, only a few studies attempted to distinguish between types of followers (e.g., Padilla et al., 2007). The paper proposes a model of destructive leadership, antecedents to personal ideology and personality trait. The study further proposes that the consequences of destructive leadership will depend on the personality trait of followers, such that the followers low on agreeableness, conscientiousness and high on emotional stability are likely to revolt against destructive leadership by becoming a destructive follower.

Nature of Destructive Leadership

The supervisors' sustained verbal or non-verbal display of hostility can include humiliating in person or public, the threat of job loss, aggressive facial expression and withholding information (Tepper, 2000), to name a few. These acts of destructive leadership can be broadly divided into two categories, those directed towards interpersonal mistreatment and/ or those directed towards task-related mistreatment.

Interpersonal Mistreatment

Quality interaction, dignity, and respect at the workplace are essential and core elements to the perception of fair treatment (Bies, 2001). Playing favorites can be regarded as interpersonal mistreatment, and this tendency can divide employees against each other and destructive leaders express anger outwardly towards un-favorites (Williams, 1989). This can result in counter-productive work behaviors. Aggressive supervisors have a low level of tolerance (Prkachin &Silverman, 2002) and have a low ability to manage interpersonal conflicts. In a study conducted by Shaw et al. (2011), many respondents reported that these supervisors also tend to punish inappropriately for offences and commits a severe breach of trust at some of the other points of time. This can lead to emotional instability among subordinates, and a sense of disassociation from others can develop, which may eventually result in decreased productivity.

Task-related Mistreatment

Making a decision based on inadequate information is a characteristic of destructive leadership. In the study conducted by Shaw et al. (2011), many respondents reported that destructive leaders either do not know what is going in a business unit or do not pay attention to what matters. They don't even seek information and opinions from others which can hamper the productivity and effectiveness of work in progress. Other destructive behaviors include the over-controlling and authoritarian nature of destructive leaders. An attempt to exert control and dominate everything can lead to dissatisfaction among subordinates.

Further, destructive leadership focuses on personal aims; they may not have explicit expectations as it can be a mismatch with organizational goals. When subordinates are not clear of what they are expected of, their productivity may decrease. Thus, interpersonal mistreatment (playing favorites, unmanaged interpersonal conflicts, inappropriate punishing) and task-related mistreatment (over-controlling, not seeking information) are behaviors that reflect destructive leadership.

Antecedent to Destructive Leadership

The conditions that predict the occurrence of abusive supervision are not known much (Tepper, 2007) and the reasons as to why supervisors abuse specific subordinates are less explored. Only a few studies (e.g., Hoobler & Brass, 2006) investigated the antecedents of abusive supervision empirically. This section argues that overemphasis on personal ideology, in interaction with the personality trait of the leader, can lead to destructive leadership.

Personal Ideology: According to Bass and Steidlmeier (1999), an essential component of destructiveness is the leader's evil intention. These bad intentions in an individual could have developed over time and can result from adverse life events, a perusal of personal aims instead of larger social objective and an unrealistic perception of constraints and opportunities.

Negative Life Events: Childhood adversity like low socioeconomic status, parental...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT