Leadership Qualities As a Risk Factor For Transgressive Behavior

Leadership Qualities As a Risk Factor For Transgressive Behavior
Transgressive behavior, a soured or toxic work atmosphere and psychological unsafety: it is not only the Hilversum media world which has to deal with it. In diverse organizations, board members in particular form a serious ‘risk group,’ write Marian de Joode and Ageeth Telleman.

You perhaps caught the Dutch news recently. Much has been written about inappropriate behavior. The news coverage has focused on excesses at the public broadcasting company, where employees have had to deal with intimidation, swearing, sexism, outbursts of anger, sun-king behavior and other loutish or transgressive behavior from executives on a shockingly large scale.
But transgressive behavior is certainly not something that occurs only at the Media Park in Hilversum. The problem is much larger. 2.5 million people in the Netherlands say they have experienced harassment or psychological insecurity in the workplace at some point. Toxic work environments increase the risk of long-term sick leave and burnout - for many years already occupational disease number 1. Less visible are the talents who, because of the work atmosphere, draw their conclusions and leave the premises quietly.
Toxic behavior - derailment that people show under pressure - is a matter for the boardroom. Not only because the boardroom bears responsibility for a safe working environment within the organization - both physically and mentally - but also because unhealthy patterns and transgressive behavior in organizations often start at the top.

A high-risk group
This is all easily explained, however. People in a management or board position generally possess a number of extremely useful skills that allow them to operate at Champions League level - a comparison that has often been drawn in the broadcasting world. They tend to be extremely stress-resistant, generally coping extremely well with the heat that occasionally arises in the metaphorical kitchen. They are always ‘on’ and they are willing to stick their necks out. They are energetic, enthusiastic, charismatic, inspiring. All qualities that make them cut out for a top position. But it is precisely these qualities that also place them in the risk group. Qualities can, in fact, derail when people come under pressure. Tantrums or intimidating behavior are often the pressurized behaviors of an energetic, enthusiastic, charismatic or inspiring person. The behavior that led to personal success for a leader - possibly even to a position in the boardroom - can under pressure become behavior that upsets people. This negative ‘role model behavior’ can lead to broader toxic patterns in leadership culture.

Why change?
But why would you want to change behaviors that have once been effective? It starts with the awareness that what got you here will not get you there. Especially at the top, the behaviors that as a leader were highly effective, can start to turn against you. Doing even 'more' of what they have always done is precisely not what is going to move leaders forward. The risk of this behavior being perceived as toxic is very high. On the other hand, the likelihood that a leader will receive this feedback in his or her position is very low. That combination is risky, because it is precisely in a leader’s function as role model, that toxic behavior has great impact.
A second reason to adapt is the changing zeitgeist: behavior that was considered ‘normal’ five or ten years ago is now no longer accepted. The new generations have different standards; they demand human leaders. In the war for talent, this is an important factor to consider.

Getting started
Fortunately, there are several tools which can largely prevent or tackle toxic behavior. The most valuable advice is to start working on the issue when there is no problem at all, a crisis-free time - a time when everything is running smoothly and when everyone is racing towards the same dot on the horizon with the wind in their sails. That is the very moment a board needs some self-reflection.

Providing insight into performing under pressure
It is prudent to examine in advance how leaders' behavior develops under pressure - and can lead to toxic behaviors. What behaviors do leaders exhibit under pressure? What happens in the team when leaders as a team come under pressure? Who stands up (or elbows to the front)? Who reacts explosively? Who reacts thoughtfully or conforming? When does behavior become toxic? There are all kinds of assessments that can accurately identify where the challenges in stressful situations lie, both on individual and team basis. Such an assessment might reveal, for example, that a management team needs other, more diverse qualities or skills.

By actively participating in developing a safe environment as a leader, you also contribute to a better feedback culture. Top management should be aware of an important fact: the higher the position, the less the feedback. Especially in higher positions, feedback will have to be well organized. Even if the door is ‘always open’ - employees will tend to pander to their superiors and prefer to offer compliments. Firstly, criticizing the boss is unpleasant. Second, it is extremely difficult - possibly risky - to speak out against someone who is in the more powerful position. The last thing employees want is conflict. A pattern can develop in which a leader’s transgressive behavior is condoned, with rationalizations such as, ‘That must be just me, apparently it is normal here.’ Or ‘That is just the way he/she is. Just forget about it.’

Role model
Leaders should always be aware of their position as role model. The behavior exhibited largely determines the atmosphere or culture on the rest of the floor. This also provides a lever to develop a safe and healthy work environment. For example, if a leader claims space for self-care, this sends a positive message that this is allowed. If you only email during business hours, others will perceive that it is okay not to work in the evenings. If, as a leader, you make room for a walk or for family - then others will also feel more secure in taking time and space for that. If you admit to having made a mistake, others are also more likely to acknowledge their mistakes and learn from them. As a leader, if you actively ask for feedback, you make it safer for others to speak up.

Your own standard is not the guideline
A key piece of advice to leaders is: do not make your own standard the guideline. You may enjoy working late into the evening, you may blossom as the deadline approaches, you may enjoy it when there are multiple balls to keep in the air at once - but this is certainly not true for everyone. Not everyone is a deadline worker, not everyone handles stress the same way. You also have to deal with people who are ‘baked differently’ or those coming back from burnout. It is in the best interest of the organization that the talents of all employees are allowed to flourish. A leader is an important role model in this.

False sense of security

To recap, psychological safety means that team members feel free to speak up, suggest unusual ideas, give feedback or report mistakes. This concept was elaborated by Professor Amy Edmondson, and its relationship to high performance has been confirmed by research. With psychological safety so high on the agenda, executives are trying to find their style in it. That this is not always successful is evidenced by a recent article in Harvard Business Review. The article cites McKinsey research showing that only 26% of executives develop the skills to create psychological safety. And it gives examples of well-meaning but poorly working attempts:

  • For example, as a manager, pretending you do not know something, or need help, just to invite team members to speak up. This is generally keenly felt, and has the opposite effect.
  • A second example mentioned is asking for feedback - a crucial element for psychological safety - and then doing nothing with it at all. Again, this is picked up on by team members; rather, it is perceived as weakness, namely the inability to face the truth.
  • Finally, the article gives an example that deals with responding to mistakes. If leaders frantically try to mask their surprise or annoyance and only respond empathically, team members feel that this is fake, which will only increase the feeling of insecurity.

The article therefore concludes with the statement that the quote "fake it till you make it" does not work at all in psychological safety.

From: Harvard Business Review, December 2023: How Leaders Fake Psychological Safety.

Essay by Marian de Joode, Business Lead Strategy, and Ageeth Telleman, CEO, of LTP Business Psychologists. Published in Management Scope 03 2024.