In Professional Development’s expert leadership tutor, Alex Firmin, continues his thoughts on toxic leadership. Read part two of this three part series.

Toxic leadership is commonly used to describe leaders who consistently display negative behaviour, toxic leaders see their employees as tools for exploitation to achieve their own personal goals. People who work for toxic leaders can feel like their confidence is being undermined, have a permanent feeling of anxiety and/or distress, and if unaddressed, experience long term issues such as clinical depression.


Coping strategies

Yagil et al. identified that followers of toxic or abusive leaders tend to take one of five coping strategies.  The quotes below are taken from real interviewees:

  1. Ingratiation: ‘I just worked harder, longer, and tried to please’
  2. Direct communication: ‘I stood my ground and defended myself when confronted’
  3. Avoidance of contact: “The section in which I worked tended to work around the person, forming our own informal work groups to solve problems and make the work happen”
  4. Support seeking: “I found one other colleague, with whom I could debrief and that made things more bearable.”
  5. Re-framing: “I have focused on what I can get out of a bad employment situation”

This study suggested that as employees experienced high levels of abuse, they tended to disengage with the leader and use avoidance tactics such as intentionally double booking to avoid meetings.  Many of these tactics make the problem worse, and only a few respondents reported using problem-solving coping responses, such as logically confronting the issue, which produced the best outcomes.

The study concluded that most followers do not have solutions on how to cope effectively with abusive supervision, and followers’ reliance on support seeking or avoidance strategies appeared to prevent them utilising problem-focused coping strategies.   Emotion-focused coping or avoidance responses may be considered dysfunctional, but research shows they are common reactions when an individual feels powerless to prevent ongoing abuse.


Coming next: Coping with Toxic Leaders Part 3: Taking Action!

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