The term “toxic leadership” is all over the news these days, most recently, e.g., in the articles about Plopsaland. But what is toxic leadership? In the news, it is often associated with “transgressive behavior” or “a strict level of control”. The question is: when do you cross the line? When does something completely legit such as holding an employee accountable for underachieving, suddenly become “transgressive”? And control is a fundamental part of management, so when does it become excessively strict, leading to burn-out?
Surprisingly, opinions about the same reality may vary tremendously. For example, in the case of Plopsaland, there are both critical voices from whistleblowers, mainly former employees whose opinions get picked up by the media, and current employees who show their support for the management of Plopsaland through an advertisement. How is this possible?
And what does this mean for us, the silent majority, who hear of these situations through the media and perhaps sometimes witness transgressive behavior as well without perceiving it as such? Are we partly responsible, even though we haven’t crossed the line ourselves?
To answer this, let’s look toward social and organizational psychology and social cognitive neuroscience.
To the brain, humiliation feels just as bad as physical pain
Researchers Matthew Lieberman & Naomi Eisenberger (UCLA) find that social pain triggers the same regions in the brain as physical pain. As far as the brain is concerned, being humiliated or excluded, leading to social pain, feels the same as getting hit. For some of us, excluding or belittling someone or shouting insults “may be necessary from time to time”. It may be touching the line perhaps, but not crossing it and it’s definitely no reason for punishment. But looking at the reaction of the brain, it is just as bad as shoving or pinching someone, which to some of those same “some of us” would definitely go too far.
Different pain threshold, different opinions
This may also explain the differences in opinion, as the pain threshold varies greatly by person. We push our pain threshold by experience and exposure to pain. What may be a funny remark to some, may be hurtful to others. What may be a harmless pat on the shoulder for some, may feel handsy to others.
There is also a psychophysiological effect, i.e. habituation: the fact that through repeated exposure we grow less sensitive or even immune. Managers who have had years of learning to take insults or harsh language from an extravagant CEO, or who even learned that acting or speaking in this way is a sign that you belong, won’t feel offended by what is simply plain language to them, albeit a little spicy, while others may find it to be completely out of line.
This also means that as so-called “neutral” bystanders, we may have a much bigger impact than we think, just by not tolerating verbal abuse in the first place.
To better understand this, it helps to grasp the broader context through the concept of the Toxic Triangle (Padilla et al. 2007). This concept explains how a toxic culture is not only created by toxic leadership, but also by “susceptible followers” and a “conductive environment”. When a manager gets silent consent to behave inappropriately, because it happens elsewhere in management too or because no one speaks up, then he or she will feel encouraged and next time cross the line even more or further.
Giving instant feedback to prevent things from getting worse
This also brings us to the perfect preventive solution: contingent feedback, or offering feedback immediately after the facts, preferably after you have witnessed the facts yourself. Very often victims of verbal abuse are too thrown off balance, but as a bystander you may have a more objective view of the situation and your feedback will have a much bigger impact.
Transgressive behavior usually doesn’t happen overnight. Perpetrators often learn from other, higher-level “role models”. They gradually push the boundaries and they are tolerated for too long, because bystanders won’t speak up, because of a high pain threshold or because they are numbed by the toxic workplace culture.
Until someone speaks up and says “this has gone too far.” But by then, the damage is often long done.