OPINION5 September 2022

Tempted to be toxic? The impact of bad leadership

Opinion People Wellbeing

Toxic leadership can have a profound impact on a business. Matt Hay of Bulbshare examines recent research on some of the more destructive facets of modern leadership.


Leaders seem to be behaving badly. In the 2020s those who exhibit toxic traits appear to be filtering up to the highest echelons of government and business. But it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

In recent decades society has been lauding the virtues of company founders who put purpose and people ahead of profit – as well as politicians who lead by example. The continued presence of malevolent folk who bully, lie or cheat their way to success had us pause for thought. As a society, were we too quick to say that authoritarian leadership was receding in place of empathic, collaborative, kind ways of running an organisation? And is there ever cause for using toxic techniques to get the job done?

The notion of toxic leaders isn’t new. In 1996, US political scientist Marcia Whicker published Toxic leaders: When organisations go bad. In it she said that good “leadership is pervasive, persuasive, and persistent. Bad leadership is poisoned with pedanticism, posturing, self-importance”. Since then, many consultants and gurus have offered methods on how to spot – and root out – bad leaders.

However, our research shows that the business community might not be so good at dealing with them. A large proportion – 70% – of our research community had experienced toxic leadership at work. In addition, 60% had experienced bullying in the workplace – data gathered through binary, A/B testing via our rich media survey functionality. 

Mental health in the workplace has been an ever-present theme at Bulbshare over the last 18 months, as it has frequently come up when talking to our global insight community about the key issues that affect their day-to-day lives – during and post-Covid-19.

In a recent webinar we ran with mental health campaigner Geoff McDonald on breaking the stigma surrounding mental health at work, we discovered that the majority of people still shy away from talking about the issue. Wanting to dig a little deeper, we launched the study. 

The methodology behind the research was principally survey-based, including a mix of binary AB, swipe and multiple choice questions, as well as open text questions to gain more long-form, qualitative and nuanced responses. The survey took place across July.

The 825 strong research community is made up of an always-on UK gen-pop community, split between 11% 16 to 25 year olds, 73% 26 to 50 year olds and 16% aged 51 and over. It is 69% female, 29% male, and 2% non-binary.

Is bad actually bad? 
Managers reading this might be able to recall a time when they lost their cool. Or resorted to chastising a team member who wasn’t coming up to scratch. Sometimes pressure makes diamonds. But if you’re using fear as a motivating force on a regular basis, you might be a toxic leader.

In unpicking the reason why people become bullying bosses, we can better equip ourselves to withstand them (as employees) or recognise and intervene (as employers). One problem might be the fact that leaders confuse cruelty with productivity – the more draconian, the tighter the ship. In fact, a significant proportion of our insight community seems to believe this, with 25% thinking that these types of workplaces are more productive in the short term.

Meanwhile more than half of research community members ( 51%) said that bosses who pressurise teams get more out of them. In contrast, an overwhelming majority said they respond best to empathy, with 85% stating that a kind boss helps them get more done.

Professional pathogen
After the pandemic, more people are prioritising mental health and a work-life balance. But toxic leaders might be preventing employees and companies from having forthright and open conversations about how to make work less of a curse and more of a boon. This toxicity at the top might account for the 47% of our respondents who said they’re still uncomfortable talking about their mental wellbeing with managers and colleagues. In fact, 63% feel only somewhat supported or unsupported by their HR teams when it came to their mental health.

Meanwhile, evidence shows that tyrannical traits are infectious. A recent study [Tokarev et al] by the University of Manchester showed a link between bullying, disillusionment, counterproductive behaviour, depression in workers and narcissism in leaders. Taken from an international sample of more than 1,200 employees across industries, the research shows that the bad habits of bosses become endemic in companies. In this way, toxic leadership can erode an organisation’s fortunes and, in some cases, lead to its total collapse.

We believe we’re seeing a shift towards a more open attitude when it comes to discussing mental health at work, and a dropping of the stigma surrounding it – albeit a slow one. While there’s undeniably been a rise in celebrities embracing the chance to discuss their own mental health issues in the media, the filtering down of this new-found openness into everyday people’s attitudes and behaviours has been more gradual.

Any movement, though, towards breaking down these barriers can only be a good thing, and with more and more organisations doing what they can to discourage toxicity at the top, the future is looking increasingly positive when it comes to mental health. 

Matt Hay is founder and chief executive officer at Bulbshare