Angela Dionisi, Ph.D.

(Un)Well at Work

The Familial Origins of Toxic Leadership

Leaders' draining personal lives can impede their professional competence.

Posted Apr 30, 2019

People are fascinated with leadership, from who the best leaders are to what the most effective leaders do, to the qualities that all good leaders possess. But what about the destructive side of leadership? Sure, leaders can inspire, incite teamwork and elevate their followers to higher levels[1], but they can also be hostile, belittling and/or indifferent to those they ostensibly lead.[2] What might compel leaders to squander the possibility of fostering greatness in others, and instead, behave in ways that harm and discourage? This is the question that recently led my co-researcher Dr. Julian Barling (Queen’s University) and I to explore the antecedents of toxic leadership, and in particular, how leaders’ lives outside of work, may interfere with their ability to lead well.

Although within their organizations, leaders are powerful people characterized by unique responsibilities, the demands placed on these employees go well beyond the walls of the organization. Leaders have personal lives. Some have children, romantic partners, and eldercare responsibilities—any number of personal demands that can create tension and stress.

However, these family-based stressors may very well constrain one’s leadership potential.

Photo by energepic from Pexels
Source: Photo by energepic from Pexels

According to the Conservation of Resources theory[3], we are all characterized by a finite number of valued psychological characteristics (e.g., self‐esteem), conditions (e.g., social support), and energies (e.g., time)—in other words, resources—that allow us to function in our environments. In fact, given the limited nature of these resources—and their importance in helping us deal with life’s challenges—we are constantly striving to fill-up and protect our "resource reservoirs." However, these reserves invariably become depleted, each time we encounter difficult problems; we draw on our various resources to cope with the stresses of life, subsequently leaving us with fewer personal assets to deal with newly arising challenges.

In our research published in Stress and Health[4], my co-researcher and I applied this robustly supported psychological theory to the domain of leadership. We hypothesized that when leaders experienced family-based stressors, they would direct their attention and emotional energies into addressing these problems. In so doing, their "resource tanks" would be drained, and their leadership capabilities compromised. For example, while on the job a leader may ruminate about the argument s/he had earlier with a romantic partner—an activity that drains valuable cognitive and emotional energies[5] that are needed to mentor followers and/or control displays of anger towards subordinates.[6]

After surveying several hundred leaders and followers, this is precisely what we found.

Leaders who reported stressful dynamics in their home life—such as excessive childcare responsibilities and/or romantic relationship conflicts—were in turn, more likely to report feeling psychologically drained and cognitively distracted at work.

We then asked the employees of these leaders to report on their leadership quality, and so was revealed the costly connection between home and work for leaders.

Photo by Craig Adderley from Pexels
Source: Photo by Craig Adderley from Pexels

By draining their emotional energies, leaders’ stressful personal lives led them to display more abusive supervision: These leaders were more likely to engage in ongoing displays of hostility towards their subordinates, for example telling employees that their thoughts or ideas were stupid, putting subordinates down in front of others, and/or lying to one’s followers.[7] As other research links this leader behavior to the psychological and physical health problems of subordinates[8]—not to mention decreases in employee[9] and organizational[10] performance—the seriousness of this effect is emphasized.

At the same time, my co-researcher and I also found that the drained cognitive resources experienced by leaders trying to cope with personal stresses, resulted in a less overt form of toxic behavior—namely passive leadership[11]: Leaders experiencing family-based conflict were at times, too distracted to behave as leaders at all. While the more visible and offensive ways that leaders can harm employees are often the focus of toxic leadership discussions[12], leaders can be equally destructive by disengaging or withdrawing from their leadership responsibilities (for example, by failing to reward or punish their employees when appropriate).[13] This lack of leadership can increase the rates of bullying, safety incidents and injuries in organizations[14], and can also foster decreases in employee well‐being[15].

Thus, whether resulting in abusive supervision or a lack of leader behavior, the resource-depleting nature of familial stresses can foster toxic leadership.

So, what now?

While the factors encouraging this toxicity originate outside of the workplace, we suggest that the resource-draining process that ultimately leads to the display of destructive leadership, reveals a critical way that organizations can combat this problem: Organizations need to work hard at filling up and/or replenishing the "resource reservoirs" of leaders.

 Photo by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
Source: Photo by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

If drained emotional energies lead to higher levels of abusive supervision, reducing this behavior might be achieved by providing leaders with wellness programs or counseling services.[16] If passive leadership is a function of drained cognitive resources, strengthening leaders’ cognitive capacities via management training and leadership development seems promising. Organizations might even consider expanding the focus of employee assistance programs to include meaningful romantic relationship and family counseling.

At the same time, leaders themselves can also work to bolster their personal resources. For example, simple non-work activities such as listening to music, going for a nature walk, or meditation, have all proven beneficial.[17] Taking up a new hobby, exercising, and getting more sleep, have also been shown to replenish positive states of being.[18]

Although great strides have been made in understanding the intersection between work and family life[19], until more recently, how family functioning influences leadership behavior has largely been ignored. Our research suggests that leaders must be recognized as those who fulfill many roles in many domains. Therefore, any attempt to understand the origins of leadership behavior must be expanded to include the personal: What happens at home does not stay at home.

References

[1] Barling, J. (2014). The science of leadership: Lessons from research for organizational leaders. Oxford University Press.

[2] Einarsen, S., Aasland, M. S., & Skogstad, A. (2007). Destructive leadership behaviour: A definition and conceptual model. The Leadership Quarterly, 18, 207-216.

[3] Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44, 513–524; Hobfoll, S. E. (2001). The influence of culture, community, and the nested self in the stress process: Advancing conservation of resources theory. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 50, 337–370.

[4] Dionisi, A. M., & Barling, J. (2019). What happens at home doesn't stay at home: The role of family and romantic partner conflict in destructive leadership. Stress and Health, 1-14.

[5] Lyubomirsky, S., Kasri, F., & Zehm, K. (2003). Dysphoric rumination impairs concentration on academic tasks. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 27, 309-330.

[6] Wall, C. N., Baumeister, R. F., Stillman, T. F., & Gailliot, M. T. (2007). Violence restrained: Effects of self‐regulation and its depletion on aggression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 62–76.

[7] Tepper, B. J. (2000). Consequences of abusive supervision. Academy of Management Journal, 43, 178–190.

[8] Ibid; Schyns, B. & Schilling, J. (2013). How bad are the effects of bad leaders? A meta-analysis of destructive leadership and its outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly, 24, 138-158.

[9] Peng, A.C., Schaubroeck, J.M. & Li, Y. (2014). Social exchange implications of own and coworkers’ experiences of supervisory abuse. Academy of Management Journal, 57, 1385-1405.

[10] Schyns, B. & Schilling, J. (2013). How bad are the effects of bad leaders? A meta-analysis of destructive leadership and its outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly, 24, 138-158.

[11] Barling, J., & Frone, M. R. (2017). If only my leader would just do something! Passive leadership undermines employee well‐being through role stressors and psychological resource depletion. Stress and Health, 33, 211–222.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Hinkin, T. R., & Schriesheim, C. A. (2008). An examination of “non-leadership”: From laissez‐faire leadership to leader reward omission and punishment omission. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 1234–1248.

[14] Skogstad, A., Einarsen, S., Torsheim, T., Aasland, M. S., & Hetland, H. (2007). The destructiveness of laissez‐faire leadership. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12, 80–92.;  Kelloway, E. K., Mullen, J., & Francis, L. (2006). Divergent effects of transformational and passive leadership on employee safety. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 11, 76–86.

[15] Barling, J., & Frone, M. R. (2017). If only my leader would just do something! Passive leadership undermines employee well‐being through role stressors and psychological resource depletion. Stress and Health, 33, 211–222.

[16] Westman, M., Hobfoll, S. E., Chen, S., Davidson, O. B., & Laski, S. (2004). Organizational stress through the lens of conservation of resources (COR) theory. In Exploring interpersonal dynamics (pp. 167-220). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

[17] Sonnentag, S., & Fritz, C. (2007). The Recovery Experience Questionnaire: development and validation of a measure for assessing recuperation and unwinding from work. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12, 204-221; Fritz, C., & Demsky, C. A. (2019). Non-work time as individual resource building: a review and research agenda. In Creating Psychologically Healthy Workplaces. Edward Elgar Publishing.

[18] Fritz, C., & Demsky, C. A. (2019). Non-work time as individual resource building: a review and research agenda. In Creating Psychologically Healthy Workplaces. Edward Elgar Publishing.

[19] Grzywacz, J. G., & Butler, A. B. (2008). Work–family conflict. In J. Barling, & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), Handbook of organizational behavior Vol 1: Microapproaches (pp. 451–468). NY: Sage Publications.

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