But Why Do They Do It?

We’ve all had toxic bosses, we all have stories about the rotten beasts who with raised eyebrow, misplaced blame or flat-out evil behavior ruin our day, and sometimes ruin our lives.

But why do they do it? What’s in it for them? Are there really that many people who are, in fact, evil, who enjoy inflicting pain? Call me crazy, but I still believe that most people are actually good, most of us want to be liked and respected. So what happens? What makes good people create dissonance at every turn?

Fellow blogger Bob Sutton points to power as poison: The need for it, the abuse of it, how it causes people to become selfish, inconsiderate, and stupid. Bob and researchers Keltner and Gruenfeld are definitely on to something. Power, not love, is blind. Okay, maybe love is too, but that’s for another blog.

Power, even when used well, carries with it a heavy burden: responsibilities; loneliness; having to be ‘on’ all the time, to have all the answers. Power Stress is a term Richard Boyatzis and I coined in Resonant Leadership—it helps to describe what happens to good people, when the chronic stress inherent in leadership is simply too much. Even good people get caught up in a cycle of giving, giving, giving. They slowly sink into mindlessness: blinders on, they try to get the job done at any cost.

Some people seem more susceptible to power stress than others. They just can’t seem to take the pressure – it’s curious why this happens to some more than others, and we don’t have all the answers yet.

But common wisdom is often the most profound. For years now I have been asking people what they think is at the heart of dissonant leadership. Try this yourself: conjure a picture of the worst boss you have ever had. Take yourself back to the time and place, remember what he or she did and said; imagine what he or she might have been thinking and feeling most of the time. Ask yourself the question: Why did he, or she, behave that way? What was underneath it all?

Maybe you came up with the same answer I have heard thousands of times: Toxic bosses are insecure people.

They are afraid, terrified even, of failure. They are scared stiff about being found out (remember the imposter syndrome? These folks really are imposters, and they know it). They believe others are out to get them – and after a while, this is absolutely true. Paranoia is ultimately justified. Which of course sends them into an endless cycle of self protection, misuse of power, and generally making people miserable.

How have you seen this play out? What do you do about it? I look forward to hearing from you.

While you are at it, why not consider another question, too. This one’s tougher. You’ll probably agree that almost all humans are insecure about something. What is a healthy way to deal with natural insecurities and the occasional lack of self confidence? What have you seen that actually works? What do you do?