Toxic managers who play employees off against each other derail their own careers

Over-eating is one of the negative coping mechanisms adopted by some employees dealing with toxic work envionments, says a Stellenbosch University study.
Over-eating is one of the negative coping mechanisms adopted by some employees dealing with toxic work envionments, says a Stellenbosch University study.
Image: MAKSIM SHEBEKO/123RF

Coping mechanisms adopted by employees to deal with “managers from hell” have been studied by Stellenbosch University.

Positive ways of caring for themselves included exercising, while negative ways included overeating, according to the study by consulting psychologist Dr Beatrix Brink, who obtained her doctorate in psychology at Stellenbosch recently.

“People use different coping strategies that vary in degree of effectiveness and range from healthy coping with positive outcomes to unhealthy coping with negative outcomes,” said Brink.

She interviewed employees, mostly women, in the manufacturing, retail, financial services, community services and public sector.

Brink found employees working in toxic environments tried to find solace in religion or spirituality; sought social and family support, which included confiding in friends and family; or consulted professional services, such as seeing a psychologist; and asking assistance from their organisation’s human resource teams, mentoring and wellness services.

Looking at the impact of a destructive manager, Brink said employees “became fearful and demotivated, experiencing emotions ranging from feeling stupid, to being tearful and angry. They became preoccupied with the experience and struggled to concentrate.”

Signals of destructive leadership constituted a lack of integrity, self-centredness, “acting out” on emotionality, inconsistency, aggression, anxiety, low self-awareness, the tendency to belittle and break down participants, blaming and bullying, introducing negative competition into the work unit, being unsupportive of participants and sabotaging the ability of the participant to perform by lack of action-taking.

“Playing team members off against one another, a type of attempt at a divide and rule strategy, favouritism and the uncertainty of whose turn it might be next, were described as some of the effects on other team members,” said Brink.

The study sounded a warning to managers who conducted themselves in this way.

“Participants described how these managers’ own careers were derailed by their roles being eroded, being demoted, ‘let go’ from employment or experiencing psychological and emotional consequences, resulting in time off work, rumoured to be from depression and nervous breakdown. These adverse effects resulted in reputational damage for the destructive leader.

“The manager’s perceived disruptive, passive, avoidant and obstructionist behaviour prevented the authorisation of tasks and decision-making, which impeded the swift and effective execution of tasks and the attainment of goals,” added Brink.

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