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RISKY BUSINESS

The real reason toxic leaders keep getting promoted

A partial image of Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil
Reuters/Mike Segar
Firmly on the management track.
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Cassie writes about the world of work.

Published Last updated

When organizational psychologist Mary-Clare Race studied personality disorders at work, she came to a surprising conclusion: A lot of the time, toxic leaders don’t get ahead despite their problematic behavior. They succeed because of it.

Race is now chief innovation and product officer at LHH, a recruitment and coaching company with 8,000 staff worldwide. She sees the issue of dysfunctional leadership as one with its roots both in how we as a society view career progression, and in how companies support people once they’re on the leadership track.

While studying large financial institutions for her doctorate at University College London, Race discovered that “a lot of organizations knew they had a problem around toxic workplace behavior and dysfunctional leadership, but they didn’t always want you to come in and lift the lid on it because they would then have to deal with it,” she says. This was a few years ago, and it’s possible that movements like #MeToo have done the kind of lid-lifting Race describes and have changed things. But business culture is replete with enough examples of far-from-ideal leaders to suggest the practice hasn’t disappeared.

When someone with problematic behavior began to be promoted, for example at a big bank, they often rose higher through the ranks, and did so more quickly, than others, Race explained. “The paradox in all that is that some of the most toxic leaders in that environment are the most successful. Because they feel most willing to take risks,” she says. Their ability to make decisions with potentially negative consequences for others, as one example, might sometimes pay off in good outcomes for the business—at least in the short term.

And of course, the successes for which dysfunctional leaders are rewarded with promotion are often matched by comparable failures and meltdowns. According to Race, there are some clear ways out of the pattern.

A different kind of career progression

Traditional company structures and notions of career, Race suggests, not only tend to reward the wrong behaviors—like excessive risk-taking—but reward them in the wrong way. Employees with stellar personal performance tend to be promoted quickly into positions where they manage other people, since management is still the most accepted way to attain higher status and get paid more. But management may not suit their skills, Race says. Some brilliant individuals should be allowed to keep doing what they do well, and get properly rewarded for it, without having to take on the very different task of responsibility for others’ careers or well being.

A good example comes from the UK’s National Health Service, Race says, where an experimental policy gave senior doctors much more responsibility for running the huge institution. But the skills needed to make someone a great heart surgeon don’t necessarily make them good at people management, she says, meaning those new managers were more likely to either “do a lot of damage through poor execution,” or to “burnout or derail in some way.” As a result, the NHS lost both managers and skilled clinicians.

Among younger workers, there is certainly more discussion of portfolio-style careers, or of consciously splitting one’s attention between a salaried job and an also-important side hustle. But that notion hasn’t permeated a lot of business, Race suggests, meaning we keep putting unsuitable people in charge of others, and then seeing them flame out. Adam Neumann, founder and ousted CEO of WeWork, and Uber founder Travis Kalanick are just two examples.

People who are very good at something but aren’t well-suited to management are often promoted into those positions because that’s the only way companies can see to reward or progress them. But if society and companies had a broader idea of what “success” and “progress” looked like, Race suggests, individuals who might otherwise end up as poor managers could keep contributing without making anyone else, or themselves, miserable.

The workplace is certainly changing fast in the wake of an increased push for equality, and since the covid-19 pandemic upended a lot of norms around office-based culture. But a narrow and linear conception of a career, where an employee works their way from the shop floor to the C-suite, endures. “Why can we not have a pathway to the top of a career that doesn’t involve managing other people?” Race asks.

Who supports the C-Suite?

Once people become leaders, their chance of success—both career progression and doing a good job—is higher if they have the right support. But while HR professionals and management consultancies have spent the last two years doling out advice on how much support leaders need to give—for example to workers struggling with competing responsibilities, or who are disenfranchised by remote status—there has been less discussion about how to support leaders themselves.

Race has advice for leaders and the organizations they work for, with the caveat that LHH is a company that offers coaching services.

  • Top leaders should be able to access the support of a coach, either within an organization where they work or independent of it, who they might go back to at different points in their career. For middle managers, less-expensive virtual coaching could be an option, for example as a company perk.
  • Race also suggests those with top-flight management ambitions build themselves a “board of advisors” for their own career, comprising people who can offer insight on different aspects of work and wellbeing and who don’t all come from within the same organization.
  • Managers should take care of themselves physically, the importance of which, Race says, is becoming more widely acknowledged. That means a good diet, exercise, and healthy work practices, like “not getting up at 5am and doing two hours of emails,” Race suggested.
  • Organizations should be providing leaders with support, like other people to talk to and management training via HR and others in the non-executive team, including involvement from boards.
  • The use of assessment and insight tools can provide regular check-ins, and sometimes a “deeper level of understanding” of the reasons behind our actions and emotions, Race said.

Bad managers aren’t bad people

The truth is, neither a toxic leader nor a run-of-the-mill bad manager necessarily has any deep character flaws. They might just be in the wrong role, or be poorly supported.

Moreover, Race says that her background in psychology means she often reflects on how imperfect we all are at work.

“A big takeaway for me of studying dysfunctional leaders and leaders who fail: Human beings, we all have a dark side, and have behaviors that could probably derail us, and which are problematic for those around us,” Race says. “But we do so little for leaders to help them manage it.”

Bad managers can make others at work miserable and cause attrition. If companies recognize more diverse types of career progression and better support those who do become managers, it will help to solve the problem.

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