The Curse of Negative Leadership (or, Does Your Rude Boss Rub Off on You?)

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Feb 8, 2013

Senior executives have the most influence over culture. Yes, all employees contribute to the culture, but we all look to senior leaders and follow their example.

In most cases, this is a good thing, especially when executives promote, support and actively demonstrate their commitment to a culture of recognition and appreciation. But this is not always the case.

When executives promote the opposite – an attitude of arrogance, unhealthy competition and incivility – employees (and the culture) will follow.

In SmartBlog on Leadership, Chris Edmonds points out:

Recent research from Weber Shandwick indicates that more than 4 in 10 Americans have experienced workplace incivility, and 38 percent of Americans believe that the workplace is becoming more uncivil and disrespectful than a few years ago…

Who is to blame for the lack of workplace civility? In the Weber Shandwick study, 65 percent of respondents put the responsibility on the shoulders of workplace leaders. That’s in line with my assessment; I believe leaders condemn or condone behavior in the workplace, by proactive action or intentional disregard or something in between.”

Leader inaction can promote negative culture

Note in particular Chris’ last point – leader inaction is just as strong in promoting a negative culture. Leaders, by nature of being called leaders, have a responsibility to encourage and demonstrate themselves the behaviors and actions they want to see from all employees. Ideally, this will be in line with the organization’s core values, but again, this is not always the case.

Research presented in the Harvard Business Review tells the story:

In our current HBR article, we present research findings that about one in four people are rude because their bosses are rude. Employees notice what seems to be working then they follow that lead, for better or worse. Some of you wrote to us that your bosses were rude as a way of creating distance — a way to show who’s boss, to set themselves apart. Others reported that managers had encouraged them to be rude.

We heard, for instance: ‘[B]eing respectful of others is a part of our culture [but] I have been told by my C-level management to step up and be a b**** and an a******. They even asked me to repeat it after them in the meaning. I actually had a manager advise me to … make my employees feel more uncomfortable around me.’”

It doesn’t matter one whit what you say your culture is if everyone – from leadership on down – does not live that culture. “Integrity” was part of Enron’s culture, and all know how that ended up when leadership actively promoted unethical behaviors.

Do your leaders promote a healthy, positive culture through their own actions, or an unhealthy, negative culture?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

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