The Dark Side of Leadership

When leaders face increased pressure they either excel or fail. Certain aspects of leadership can help or hurt progress and ultimately straddle the line between strength and weakness, especially when it counts the most.

  • When does drive become ruthless ambition?
  • When does confidence turn into arrogance?
  • When does attention to detail become controlling?

The dark side of leadership is defined as “an ongoing pattern of behavior exhibited by a leader that results in overall negative organizational outcomes based on the interactions between the leader, follower and the environment,” according to a 2009 report published by leadership coaching consultant Semann & Slattery.

Leaders who cross over to the dark side and contribute to negative results often display one or more of the following attributes:

  • Narcissistic
  • Controlling
  • Arrogant
  • Selfish
  • Dishonest

These personality traits can lead to the abuse of power, lack of empathy and even unethical behavior. For example, a narcissist may only listen for their own ideas while punishing critics who disagree, causing a toxic environment where those in agreement are rewarded and those who do not are punished.

What makes a good leader avoid the dark side? How can employees deal with leaders showing dark side behaviors? 

Leaders: How Can You Combat the Dark Side?

To avoid allowing dark personality traits to take over, leaders need to have a better understanding of how they react to certain situations and what their default destructive behavior is. This can be done by asking for feedback, becoming more self-aware and learning more about positive personality traits that are found in effective leaders.

Ask for Feedback

It can be hard to ask for constructive criticism; however, doing so can provide an outside view of how your behaviors are perceived. Be sure to talk to individuals who are not your confidants or who may just tell you what you want to hear. Talk to your boss and ask your employees to provide feedback. It can be done anonymously.

Increase Self-Awareness

Increasing your self-awareness and being proactive in finding solutions can help you minimize or prevent destructive behavior. Completing a personal assessment is one of several suggestions to combat leadership derailment according to a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Business and Management.

Not sure what personality traits will cause you to react to stress a certain way?

Hogan Assessments, a personality assessment provider, has pinpointed 11 primary scales that help you understand your dark side and determine what causes you to derail. Completing the online assessment can provide deeper insight and self-awareness to your actions based on the personality trait.

According to the Cautious scale, behavior can vary from being proactive and optimistic to acting defensive and uncertain. Pair the selection with the subscales, and the assessment will explain your reactions.

For example, high scorers of those who are cautious and avoidant are “resistant to change and reluctant to take even reasonable chances for fear of being evaluated negatively.” They are also hypersensitive to criticism and feel inadequate.

Develop Positive Leadership Behaviors

Authors of the study Exploring the Concept of Leadership Derailment: Defining New Research Agenda claim that derailed leaders and successful ones make it to the same level, “but plateaus due to a disconnect or lack of fit between personal characteristics and the skills and demands of the job.” Those who become successful leaders share these common characteristics:

  • Maintained composure under stress
  • Handle mistakes with poise
  • Focused problems-solvers
  • Got along with all kinds of people

Learning more about how to incorporate these characteristics could help leaders combat dark side personality traits.

Employees: Advice on How to Deal with the Dark Side of Leadership

Bad bosses exist. Those leaders who fail to inspire followers and meet organizational goals have personality traits that become their own worst enemy. Below are a few tips to help you deal with negative behavior.

Understanding their Motivations

Try to understand what motivates your boss at work. Does he or she crave complete control? Do they want to be praised for their work and recognized for their ideas? By better understanding what makes your boss happy or angry, you can tailor how you respond to his or her behaviors, including avoiding he or she if necessary.

Crafting Your Feedback to Your Boss

Giving feedback to your boss, or “managing up,” can be intimidating; however, it can be done effectively and productively. How it is received and absorbed may be beyond your control. But if you follow these four elements of feedback provided in a 2017 article published by Deloitte, you’ll feel more comfortable approaching a leader about his or her negative behaviors.

  1. The giver’s inner dialogue: This dialogue consists of the beliefs you have about the other person and his or her abilities, character and current emotional disposition.
  2. Nonverbal communication: Pay attention to body language, tone and facial expressions between you and the person you are giving feedback to.
  3. Verbal communication: This may be the least impactful of the four.
  4. The receiver’s inner dialogue: Pay attention to the receiver’s beliefs about themselves

In addition to incorporating these four elements, a few do’s and don’ts can also help boost your confidence and get your point across in a professional way.

  1. Frame your message by accentuating the positive and reducing the negative.
  2. Pay attention to “micro-expressions,” as they serve as non-verbal cues and can alert you to feelings of happiness, anger, sadness and surprise.
  3. Give feedback that shows appreciation, offers coaching and provides evaluation.

Read more about what makes leaders ineffective here.

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