Toxic Bosses, The No Asshole Rule, and the Total Cost of Assholes (TCA)
Years ago, I held a job as a teenager at a small local grocery store in rural Missouri. As we served a small community, we had a small staff, and over time, I found myself doing just about every job there. For the most part, we all got along and worked well together, and I even had some co-workers who were good friends. Shift supervisors were reasonably positive, I liked the work and my interactions with the customers and, collectively, we did a good job doing what needed to be done.
While the grocery store felt like my own little professional community, and I mostly enjoyed going to work, I always hated it when the store manager showed up. Not because he was a micromanager, because I was worried about getting caught goofing off, or even because he might point out my mistakes. I hated it when he came into the store because he was just a huge jerk. When he was around, anxiety levels were always high, and his negativity made everyone nervous. It hurt customer service and our overall productivity.
As I reflect on the impact this store manager had on the business, its employees, and its customers, I am struck by just how much damage one toxic leader can cause. Just a couple short years later, the grocery store went out of business, not because this little rural town didn’t need a grocery store, but because of the various negative impacts that followed in the wake of the store manager.
The Cost Of Toxic Leaders
In management literature, there is what has become known as the “no a sshole rule” or the corresponding metric that has become defined as the “total cost of a ssholes” (TCA). Professor Robert Sutton coined this provocative and admittedly crude term in his 2007 book, following it up a decade later with a self-proclaimed “ survival guide.” In a nutshell, TCA refers to the total cost to firms for employing toxic managers who end up increasing company turnover rates and reducing the creativity, innovation, motivation and productivity of their team. Sutton is adamant about his usage of the crude term because he believes related words “do not convey the same degree of awfulness.”
In his book, Sutton suggests two simple tests to identify such toxic leaders: (1) “After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?” and (2) “Does the person target people who are less powerful than him/her?” He identifies toxic behaviors that often follow such individuals, which both act as identifying markers and warning signs: insults, violations of personal space, unsolicited touching, threats, sarcasm, flames, humiliation, shaming, interruption, backbiting, glaring and snubbing. And while Sutton acknowledges that we all have a bit of toxicity in us that we may manifest on occasion, there is a big difference between the occasional a sshole and what he calls the “certified a sshole.” Of course, the latter is the major problem for organizations.
The Importance Of Positive Workplace Relationships
Many discussions have examined the role of workplace relationships generally, and the leader/subordinate relationship more specifically. In my own research, I have repeatedly demonstrated the importance of workplace relationships with co-workers and employee/employer relationships. Very consistently, across time, location, industry and culture, these relational factors are among the most important predictors of employee engagement and satisfaction, turnover intentions and withdrawal cognitions, and employee innovation and productivity.
Simply put, when workplace relationships are bad, particularly with a boss, the cost to the organization is large. On the flip side, when relationships are positive, employees feel supported and empowered; are more inclined to take the appropriate risks needed to drive innovation; are more engaged and productive; and are far more likely to stay.
So how do we effectively deal with toxic leadership?
Returning to my cautionary tale about the store manager, the reality is there is only so much the average employee can do because of the power differential in their relationship with their boss. As a teenage employee with no power, there was likely nothing I could have done to change my manager’s behavior, and if I tried, I likely would have ended up on the receiving end of more negative behaviors.
This is why other organizational leaders (with status and position power) need to look out for toxic behaviors and stand up for the most vulnerable among their employees. Organizations need to ensure that robust reporting mechanisms are in place and utilized. Most importantly, organizations need to remember TCA and ensure they hire and promote leaders who have a servant leader and employee-centric mentality that can create a positive purpose-driven workplace culture.
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.