Leadership Derailment

In the last few articles, we discussed “toxic leadership” (also referred to as destructive leadership) and presented their characteristics, as well as the characteristics of their followers and colluders.  However, toxic leaders are relatively rare. It is estimated that approximately 3 to 5% of the general population have psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies. Even fewer of these individuals are high-functioning enough to enter positions of power and survive political processes in organisations. More often, destructive leadership is confused with psychopathy/sociopathy. In fact, all leaders have destructive tendencies to some extent and often these tendencies are not related to sociopathy/psychopathy, but rather, to general personality characteristics.

 

Leadership Derailment

By

Dr Paul Vorster (The Ethics Institute)

 

In the last few articles, we discussed “toxic leadership” (also referred to as destructive leadership) and presented their characteristics, as well as the characteristics of their followers and colluders. Additionally, we also investigated what kinds of social environments may be more susceptible to the influence of these leaders. Some protective mechanisms, of which good psychometric screening is of most importance, were presented.

However, toxic leaders are relatively rare. It is estimated that approximately 3-5% of the general population have psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies. Even fewer of these individuals are high-functioning enough to enter positions of power and survive political processes in organisations. More often, destructive leadership is confused with psychopathy/sociopathy. In fact, all leaders have destructive tendencies to some extent and often these tendencies are not related to sociopathy/psychopathy, but rather, to general personality characteristics (Burke, 2006; Hogan, Curphy, & Hogan, 1994; Hogan & Hogan, 2001, 2009; Zeigler-Hill & Marcus, 2016). 

The irony is that most of us have personality traits which may be destructive under certain conditions. Even more disturbing is that these traits do not have to be of clinical concern for them to be harmful (Zeigler-Hill & Marcus, 2006). Often these traits are referred to as sub-clinical, because their indicators are not extreme enough to warrant a disorder, and are found in the general non-clinical population.

Hogan et al (1994), identified 11 behavioural traits related to the Axis-II personality disorder index in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (IV), which are found to some degree in normal non-clinical individuals, and which have a negative impact on leadership and organisations (refer to Harms, Spain, & Hannah, 2011). These 11 “dark-side” characteristics have been demonstrated to negatively correlate with indicators of leadership performance and effectiveness (Hogan & Hogan, 2009). The good news is that these traits can be identified using a psychometric test that takes between 15-20 minutes to complete and which has demonstrable validity and reliability internationally and in the South African context (Strauss, 2010; de Bruin, Vorster, & Furnham, 2017). This instrument referred to is the Hogan Development Survey, or HDS, which is a popular instrument for the measurement of leadership derailment and the first of its kind to measure subclinical personality traits related to dysfunctional behaviour in the workplace.

We briefly present the scales (which represent behavioural traits) of the HDS and briefly discuss how each of these traits can negatively impact organisations and teams.

The 11 Dark-Side Characteristics of the HDS

The HDS has 11 dark-side traits which are actually personality strengths that are overused under certain conditions. These traits manifest and become destructive when the individual is tired, overly stressed, or when not managing behaviour effectively in social environments (Hogan & Hogan, 2009). Recently, Dr Robert Hogan discussed the HDS at the African Congress of Psychology and referred to these “derailers” (a colloquial term for the 11 traits), as manifesting when the individual becomes their authentic self. This reference was made to the socio-analytic theory which argues that human beings have evolved to live and work in groups (we are a gregarious species) and thus enact social desirability in their interactions with others to ensure social acceptance and approval.

Hogan and Holland (2003) indicated that the primary driving forces behind behaviour in social groups are “getting along” with others and “getting ahead” of others. These two forces can be understood as a need to be liked and accepted by social groups (getting along) and improving status within the group (getting ahead). In many destructive leaders, the need to “get ahead” outweighs the need to “get along” and may often result in destructive effects on followers, colleagues and the organisation as a whole. Interestingly, Rossouw and van Vuuren (2017) refer to a balance between doing what is “good” for the “self” and the “other” and indicate that unethical behaviour often results when the “self” takes prominence over the other.

In this respect, the 11 dark side characteristics are indicative of behavioural traits which are generally used effectively when individuals are not under extreme pressure and able to manage their reputation (the behaviours they enact publicly to others) on a day-to-day basis. It is when these individuals are not managing their behaviour that problems may arise.  

The 11 dark-side personality traits can be viewed in the table below (adapted from Hogan and Hogan, 2009):

HDS Scale

Axis II Personality Disorder (DSM-IV)

Characteristics

Excitable

Borderline

Display dramatic emotional peaks and valleys. 

Skeptical

Paranoid

Negative, cynical and distrusting of others.

Cautious

Avoidant

Reluctant to take risks; often too careful.

Reserved

Schizoid

Indifferent to the feelings of others; stoic.

Leisurely

Passive-Aggressive

Passive aggressive and agenda driven.

Bold

Narcissistic

Assertive, self-promoting, and arrogant.

Mischievous

Anti-Social

Impulsive, risk-taking, and devious.

Colorful

Histrionic

Attention-seeking, charismatic, and dramatic.

Imaginative

Schizotypal

Impractical, unusual, and unpredictable.

Diligent

Obsessive-Compulsive

Overly conscientious and nit-picky.

Dutiful

Dependent

Eager to please, overly dependent on others.

 

  1. 1.       Excitable

People who score high on Excitable tend to vacillate between emotional states quite quickly. The trait correlates highly with neuroticism (low levels of emotional stability). Leaders and managers who derail on this construct are often perceived as emotionally unpredictable and subordinates often feel as if they have to ‘walk on eggshells” around them. This trait can often be detrimental to leaders as they may be prone to emotional outbursts. Excitement about projects can often turn into despair when things do not go according to plan.

  1. 2.       Skeptical

People who score high on Skeptical are often overly critical of projects and people. Leaders who derail on this trait are often viewed as cynical and difficult to pitch ideas to as they often poke holes in new initiatives and focus on how initiatives can go wrong. This may be very demotivating for subordinates, especially those with a creative orientation who may feel that the leader constantly criticises new ideas and is too negative.

  1. 3.       Cautious

People who score high on Cautious are often too careful and risk-averse and may miss opportunities, or delay projects. Leaders who derail on this trait are often perceived as stifling opportunities or hold onto decisions for too long, because of an overt risk-averseness. This can be demotivating to subordinates as opportunities can be missed and the leader first wants a risk-assessment before any initiatives are taken. They are often seen as too conservative regarding their decision-making style.

  1. 4.       Reserved

People who score high on Reserved are often stoic (emotionless), aloof in social environments, and may withdraw and become unavailable when stressed. Leaders who derail on this trait may be perceived as unavailable, difficult to read, and avoidant of social interaction. This trait is relatively detrimental to leaders who need to be available to make decisions and motivate employees. Additionally, they may avoid making decisions, not reply to emails, or avoid answering the phone when under duress. Often this style is referred to as the “invisible” leader.

  1. 5.       Leisurely

Individuals who score high on Leisurely are often passive-aggressive in nature, and may demonstrate warmth and support to others publicly, but drive a hidden agenda privately. Leaders who derail on this trait are often perceived as “two-faced” as they claim one thing but do another. Usually, this comes from a need to avoid conflict (being warm and supportive), while privately doing the opposite. Subordinates and colleagues of someone who derails on Leisurely may distrust such a leader and often are aware that there is a difference between what they say and what they do.

  1. 6.       Bold*

People who score high on Bold are often overly arrogant, self-serving, and assertive. Leaders who derail on this trait are often perceived as dominating, selfish, and narcissistic. Colleagues and subordinates may feel that the leader doesn’t really care about them, but rather is only interested in them if there is a benefit for the leader. In this way, leaders who derail on this construct may often harm individuals in the organisation in order to progress up the corporate ladder or will drive poorly conceived initiatives with such confidence that people will tend to follow them blindly. They also have a tendency to dominate in meetings not giving others a chance to speak or give input. 

  1. 7.       Mischievous*

People who score high on Mischievous are often overly risk-taking, impulsive, and manipulative (devious) in nature. Leaders who derail on this trait are often perceived as impulsive decision-makers who take unnecessary risks and who do not care about the needs and welfare of others. In this regard, subordinates and colleagues may feel that such leaders make snap-judgements, or cause trouble between individuals on an interpersonal level.

*Bold and Mischievous are often indicators of toxic leaders and if an individual has both of these traits special care must be taken in their appointment or promotion in the organisation.

8. Colorful

People who score high on Colorful are often attention-seeking, overly dramatic, and self-obsessed. Leaders who derail on this trait are often perceived as distracting, glitzy, and flamboyant and will often pull attention away from important issues to show-off or vie for attention from others. Subordinates and colleagues of such a leader may feel that the individual is overly expressive, over-exaggerates, and may overdramatize events.

  1. 9.       Imaginative

People who score high on Imaginative are often impractical, may seem unusual, and are unpredictable in nature. Leaders who derail on this trait are often perceived as having odd ideas which are not grounded in reality and have trains of thought that are difficult to follow. Subordinates and colleagues of leaders who derail on this trait may describe such leaders as eccentric, and may eventually see them as losing legitimacy when making decisions because their ideas are not grounded in good reality-testing.

  1. 10.   Diligent

People who score high on Diligent are often overly conscientious and ‘nitpicky’. Leaders who derail on this trait are perceived as difficult to please and have a micromanaging orientation when stressed. They also have trouble delegating tasks believing that they need to control the quality of outputs produced which may make them difficult to work with. In some cases, these leaders may get involved with work that is very operational in nature (below their job-level) having a need to check the quality of work or check all the facts, before finalising projects or making decisions.

  1. 11.   Dutiful

People who score high on Dutiful tend to be deferential (deferring decisions and the responsibility for a decision to others), and often struggle to stand firm on issues they believe in. Leaders who derail on this trait are often perceived as dependent on others and easily changeable (the do not stand firm on issues) which may make them appear illegitimate in leadership positions. Often the brunt of responsibility for decision-making rests with colleagues, or in extreme cases, with subordinates, which pressures these individuals to act on behalf of the leader.

Conclusion

Although these 11 dark-side traits negate leadership effectiveness and negatively affect the performance of teams and eventually organisations (especially if the derailing leader sits at the top of the organisation in a high-profile position), leaders and prospective leaders can be trained to (1) be aware of their derailers, and (2) to alter behaviour when stressors hit. Usually, emerging leaders in middle-management can get away with the demonstration of some of these traits in their early career and will learn relatively quickly that derailment can be costly to their reputation and the effectiveness of their teams.

Unfortunately, not everyone is coachable in this regard. Individuals who have high levels of Adjustment (high emotional stability, or low neuroticism), and who derail on Bold, are often more difficult to coach and will not easily change their behaviour. However, if they are made aware of how derailment can harm their reputation and their career success, some inroads can be made in some cases, but a convincing argument will still have to be made. What is important is the fact that these 11 derailers are also strengths, which often make people stand-out. For example, people high on the Excitable trait may demonstrate a passion for projects and ideas, and Bold individuals will demonstrate self-confidence and leader-like behaviours. It is when these traits are used under extreme stress (when an individual is tired, stressed, or not aware of their reputation) that they become dangerous and damaging.  

 

References

Burke, J. (2006). Why leaders fail: Exploring the dark side. International Journal of Manpower, 27, 91-100. doi: 10.1108/01437720610652862

Harms, P. D., Spain, S. M., & Hannah, S. T. (2011). Leader development and the dark side of personality. The Leadership Quarterly, 22, 495-509.

Hogan, R., Curphy, G. J., & Hogan, J. (1994). What we know about leadership: Effectiveness and personality. American Psychologist, 49, 493-504. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.49.6.493

Hogan, J., & Holland, B. (2003). Using theory to evaluate personality and job performance relations: A socioanalytic perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 100-112.

Hogan, R., & Hogan, J. (2009). Hogan Development Survey manual. Tulsa, OK: Hogan Assessment Systems.

Hogan, R., & Hogan, J. (2001). Assessing leadership: A view from the dark side. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 9, 40-51. doi: 10.1111/1468-2389.00162

Rossouw, D., & van Vuuren, L. (2017). Business ethics (5th ed.). Cape Town, South Africa: Oxford University Press.

Zeigler-Hill, V., & Marcus, D. K. (2016). The dark side of personality: Science and practice in social, personality, and clinical psychology. American Psychological Association (APA).