How toxic bosses destroy companies

Some years back, business literature awoke to the psychological condition of sociopathy, with articles galore to help us spot whether our boss was a form of psychopath, incapable of empathy and ruthlessly exploiting all around them.

Studies followed, reporting, for instance, that 21 percent of 261 senior corporate executives tested in the US were psychopaths, compared to a norm across the population of barely three percent.

Subsequent debates have argued the fine print over whether these individuals are actually psychopaths, or sociopaths, or have another mental disorder, called narcissistic personality disorder. But whatever the name of their conditions, they create chaos.

They have no capacity to see or respect the perspective of others, are completely disrespectful, and many of them prop themselves up with a sadistic addiction to diminishing others. Of course, in a world where one in five of our CEOs are in that space, we all know one.

According to one Forbes article talking about one particular such business leader, his surrounding colleagues and stakeholders described him as ‘the world’s only living heart donor’ – no heart left there. And we can all spot a top boss who is heartless, and understand exactly what we are seeing. But what we may not be understanding is what that means for their business, and for anyone connected with it.

For as research has continued, academics have found that such individuals are hugely damaging to their own organisations. It may look OK as they burn another supplier with a brutal sideswipe, another investor, another business manager, more staff, and more customers, but cumulatively they destroy businesses with their disrespect and bad behaviour.

Indeed, inside-track HR leaders have moved to testing for psychopathic traits and simply excluding such entrants from responsible jobs.

Seed investors, venture capitalists and equity investors, too, would do well to do the same, and keep their money away from management teams who are exhibiting mental ill health in their profound disrespect for other stakeholders. However, for suppliers and employees, the decision-making is a more mixed equation.

For these sadly destroyed individuals pay money for services and we live in an economy of high unemployment where payment is not to be sneered at. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, being happy and fulfilled comes a long way after being able to pay for food and shelter. Yet how much misery should we endure in order to pay the rent?

For, here’s the thing: those who brave it into supplying psychopathic bosses achieve a uniquely unstable income. They can be fired at any moment. Or they can suffer inexorably negative, toxic and miserable days for weeks and months, until finally they just cannot take any more.

To whit, talking to one of our own suppliers last week who works for us only at weekends, he told me four people had resigned from his ‘day job’ company in preceding days on being insulted. For the bosses involved, now recruiting all week, one wonders if their insults were worth it.

But for the staff, they may now be very worried about money. In fact, we were discussing it because we too lost a client last week, taken one insulting text chain too far by a boss whose reputation has seen other third-party suppliers literally refuse to give us quotes for his work.

Reviewing his attitude to his customers, which is that any complainant must necessarily by lying and be a plant by a competitor, and his disrespect to suppliers and staff, whose work he simply pours scorn on as a routine engagement, it’s clear how much harm his attitudes are doing to the quality of his own service.

But the smart thing is to spot such distasteful characters and start applying elsewhere to replace them, with a resignation at the end once a new income is secured.

Yet sometimes their toxicity is so draining that suppliers get locked into long-term victimisation. If so, be brave. We replaced that person’s ‘fees’ in just six working days with better work and got emails from his partners saying how disappointed they were to lose us. No one should be putting up with nasty bosses: life just is not lived twice over.

The writer is a journalist and entrepreneur.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.