28 November 2013

The Dark Side of Leadership

I'm in the process of developing a new Certificate in Innovation Leadership that Adler will offer in 2014 in conjunction with HRPA. It comes from several talks I've done over the past several months on Enabling an Environment of Innovation. While doing some research on enabling factors, I came across an interesting study published last year in the Academy of Management Journal entitled The Dark Side of Leadership: A three-level investigation of the cascading effect of abusive supervision on employee creativity.

The primary results of this extensive study by Dong Liu (Georgia Institute of Technology), Hui Liao (University of Maryland), and Raymond Loi (University of Macao) are not that surprising. They found that abusive behaviours by top leaders tend to cascade downwards to be emulated by lower-level managers and group leaders. They also found that abusive behaviours significantly and negatively affect employees' creativity and hence, innovation throughout the organization. This result is corroborated by extensive literature indicating that intrinsic motivation is critical to promoting innovation; nothing kills intrinsic motivation among people more effectively than abuse.

What was particularly interesting to me was how motive attribution affected the results. The authors tested two attribution reasons: promotion, that is, whether abusive behaviour was perceived by subordinates as the way to get ahead in the organization; and injury, that is, whether abusive behaviour was experienced simply as malicious intent to cause harm.

If promotion was the attributed reason for abusive behaviour, the cascading effect of higher-level abusive behaviours was enhanced. In other words, if underlings perceived that abuse was the way to get ahead because those higher up behaved that way, they were more likely to adopt similarly abusive behaviours, as compared to those who perceived that their superiors were simply mean bastards. On the other hand, attributed promotion had a somewhat mitigating effect on the creativity-killing aspects of abusive behaviours. In other words, if people perceived that the abuse was the result of organizationally sanctioned success behaviour, employee creativity was destroyed less than perceived meanness.

The bottom line is, if you're seeking innovation in your organization, you must have no tolerance for abusive behaviours. Period. However, if you are an abusive person, ensure that your victims believe that you're only doing it to get ahead.

[And yes, for the irony challenged among my readers, that last statement was indeed satirical.]

Now, one might say that organizations should never tolerate abusive behaviours. Sadly, I have first-hand knowledge of several organizations that are officially named among Canada's so-called Best Places to Work (don't get me started), in which the organization culture has been described as toxic, and employees regularly leave without a job to go to, choosing unemployment over continuing abuse. Among these companies' espoused values? Innovation. Go figure.

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