Lifting The Smoke Screen Off Of Abusive Leaders

I continue to hear stories from people about the leaders in their lives who are emotionally and verbally abusing them and I can’t help but feel that the benefits of our “survival of the fittest” approach to success, which continues to promote a leadership by title standard, has become a strength gone too far.

Now, I have had the pleasure of working in corporate and community spaces, across a few different fields, including but not limited to, education, healthcare, non-profits, and financial industries. I have met some incredible leaders, however, I have not always had the good fortune to work with them directly. In my journey to figuring out who I wanted to be when I grew up, I have had the displeasure of working with some leaders, across various levels of the organization, who I would call abusive leaders.

Defining Abusive Leadership

Abusive leadership is not a new term but it is an increasingly more pervasive issue that has no formal resolve in a society that continues to promote bad leaders forward. Abusive leaders are individuals who leverage emotional and/or verbal abuse as a part of their leadership practice. Many abusive leaders have either had that model of leadership modeled for them and/or they have unresolved psychological issues that manifest in the form of low self-esteem, depression anxiety, paranoia, or other forms of neuroses or psychoses that lead to using abusive tactics to superficially cope. Often they have some level of awareness that they must keep their leadership styles in check when around their superiors. They might even overly compensate in front of others, leaving the people that they work with wondering who they hell they really are. That being said, they are in a high enough position of power that they can manipulate the context of their offenses.

The challenge with this cycle of abusive leadership is that leaders who emotionally and verbally abuse their colleagues and employees are difficult to catch. Unfortunately, they know how to manipulate the power dynamics in a way that makes it difficult to hold them accountable. Their tactics are borderline HR problems and are unlikely to qualify as a “major” offense. As with many other kinds of abuse, it can make the target of the abuse feel like they are going a little crazy. This is especially true in the workplace because while the domestic forms of power and control are more private (e.g., in the home) but overt abuse in workspaces, although more public, is more clandestine.

Every time we choose to satisfy others’ needs before our own, we are, in the end, choosing to actually NOT help others as much as we otherwise could.

Spotting An Abusive Leader

  • They cannot walk the talk: There is a significant gap between their public “leadership style” and their more private actions.
  • They Use Smoke Screens: They regularly manipulate others into doing what is best for them under the guise of “helping others,” through either an authoritarian or overly nurturing nature, both of which feel like Mean Girl/Boy tactics.
  • They Shape Shift: They take on a different persona in front of their superiors, and others, and to the extent that they no longer resemble how their victims/survivors have come to experience them.
  • They Fake It Till They Make It: They don’t seem to be doing any real work. Leadership may tout their accomplishments and contributions but their colleagues are still trying to figure out what they do, if anything at all.

The very real danger for ourselves at this point is that we allow the distractions of doing things for others, in the name of meeting their expectations, to keep us from doing what we need to do for ourselves.  We are “givers” but we are not happy.  We are not whole. We cannot get ahead.

Perhaps the most important and most positive attribute of being accountable to ourselves is that when we do so, we get the things we need.  This, in turn, gives us the ability to give others what they need.  It is only in taking care of ourselves that we can do our best work in taking care of others.  Put another way, every time we choose to satisfy others’ needs before our own, we are, in the end, choosing to actually NOT help others as much as we otherwise could.

Abusive leaders are individuals who leverage emotional and/or verbal abuse as a part of their leadership practice.

Key Tactics Used By Abusive Leaders

  • “Policyding”: They hide behind policies (Policyde) and work standards to avoid responsibility and conflict even though, or because they are aware that, they are the ones who not only caused the issued, but are at the very root of it.
  • The Car Salesman: They will manipulate others with sleazy car salesman-type tactics, often coercing people into “yes” when the person means “no”, or they will ask questions in the name of genuine inquiry, but the only response they are prepared to give is to yell “Wrong!” right in the middle of someone’s response to regain some superficial control of the conversation.
  • The Colonial: They get upset when you directly update their colleagues and superiors on the progress of your work in the name of following the chain of command, even though you were asked to provide an update, because you disrupted their plan to take credit for it or have undermined their attempts to take false credit.
  • Ego Blocking: They will hold up the progress of the organization (e.g., shut down communication, disrupt a working process, delete key files, etc.) just because they did not get what they wanted or do not see themselves getting any credit, but, if caught, will often try to convince others that their actions were in the name of what is best for everyone.
  • The Silent Martyr: They won’t say what needs to be said in the name of not wanting to “rock the boat” and “avoiding conflict” even though they are at the center of the conflict.
  • Bait and Switch: They will offer you resources (e.g., policies, procedures, systems of support) but then pressure you to not use those resources fully, in the name of, being a “team player,” when really they personally fear being held accountable.

These characteristics and tactics are not meant to be exclusive or exhaustive. Rather, they are to put a name to and unveil what abusive leaders attempt to brush off as business as usual. Feel free to add your own!