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What happens to bad leaders? Mostly they get promoted or rewarded, new study finds

August 1, 2007

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Where do bad bosses go? Not where they should go, in the view of those who work for them.

Mostly they get promoted or rewarded, according to a study to be presented nest week at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (Philadelphia, Aug. 5-8).

So reported 45% of the individuals responding to a survey about a bad leader they'd had the misfortune to work for. Another 19% said that nothing much happened to the bad leader. And a mere 19% reported the bad leader was either demoted or forced out.

"[T]hese respondents were probably describing one of the most terrible leaders they had ever experienced," write the study's authors, Anthony Don Erickson, Ben Shaw and Zha Agabe of Bond University in Australia. "Given this, the fact that 64.2% of the respondents indicated that either nothing [at all] or something positive happened to the bad leader is rather remarkable -- remarkably disturbing."

While there has been no shortage of research seeking to distill the essence of good leadership, this study is a relative rarity -- an attempt to probe its opposite. "Discussion of bad leadership," the authors observe, "seems confined to high-profile and conspicuous cases of fallen leadership icons such as Martha Stewart, Jeffrey Skilling, Saddam Hussein and others whose wrongdoing provokes strong moral outrage." But bad leadership "exists not only at the highest levels within societal and organizational structures but also among rank and file leaders and supervisors. After all, high-level bad leaders surely serve an apprenticeship somewhere!"

They add: "While most leadership development focuses on teaching aspiring leaders how they should behave, surely some time should be devoted to teaching them how not to behave."

To learn more about a surprisingly unstudied group, the professors carried out an Internet survey in which people were invited to respond to 21 questions about bad leaders, including seven open-ended queries about a specific bad leader they had worked for. Some 240 people, mostly from Australia and the United States, provided full responses. On average, respondents were in the mid-forties, and, on the whole, they were a highly educated group, with more than three fourths having university undergraduate or postgraduate degrees. A surprise to the study's authors was "the almost complete lack of any significant differences" in the pattern of answers from respondents of different ages and genders or about leaders of different ages and genders.

What makes for a bad leadership? More often than not, it had to do with a variety of deficiencies in character and personality rather than lack of competence; but, varied though bad bosses may be, they appear to be depressingly common. Asked to indicate the percentage of leaders, according to their own experience, who could be classified as good, average, or bad, the respondents provided mean estimates of 24.2%, 37.6%, and 37.4% respectively. Asked to estimate from 1=common to 7=rare the prevalence of bad leaders in their organizations, they produced an average estimate of 2.5, thereby indicating, in the authors' words, "that bad leaders were quite common."

Survey responses suggest that bad leaders are born rather than made: Asked whether their bad leader had always been bad or simply became bad at some point, more than three fourths (76.8%) chose the former. Among those who said that the bad leadership had developed over time, the most frequently cited cause was skills mismatch (28.2%), followed by 16.9% each for too much pressure and too much deviousness or bullying for the purpose of furthering their careers.

Other findings included the following:

-- About 29% of respondents indicated that the principal impact of bad leaders on them personally was in engendering such serious stress symptoms as insomnia, bad dreams, general fatigue, and loss of concentration. About 16% blamed a bad leader for emotional effects, such as hating one's job, dreading going to work, and feeling depressed about work life; another 15% identified negative effects on personal relationships outside the workplace.

-- Asked about the bad leader's impact on their work performance, by far the largest number (33.6%) cited lowered motivation, which included lowered enthusiasm, goofing off, and just going through the motions.

-- Asked whether they believed that the particular bad leader they singled out was widely viewed as bad, about 90% indicated that this was the case, 40.4% indicating that "many" colleagues were of that opinion and 48.8% reporting that "nearly everyone" was.

All the more discouraging, then, that bad leaders end up getting promoted or rewarded, a point that the authors return to in their conclusion:

"As with any sort of cancer, the best alternative to prevention is early detection," the professors write. "Based on the results of the study, we are not confident that this is likely to occur, or that impediments will not stand in the way of management's ability to effectively deal with bad leaders...The leaders above them who did nothing, who rewarded and promoted bad leaders, or who were perhaps unaware of the existence of bad leaders in their organization's ranks, represent an additional problem that demands further study -- and action."

The study, "An Empirical Investigation of the Antecedents, Behaviors, and Outcomes of Bad Leadership" will be among several thousand studies presented at the Academy of Management meeting. Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has about 18,000 members in 100 countries, including some 10,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw about 8,000 scholars and practitioners to Philadelphia from August 5th to 8th for nearly 1,700 sessions on a host of subjects relating to corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.

Media Coverage:
Miami Herald. The devastating costs of tyrants at work. (Saturday, August 11, 2007).
Reuters. Bad bosses get promoted, not punished: study. (Friday, August 03, 2007).
The Globe & Mail. Manage poorly and prosper. (Saturday, August 11, 2007).

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