Why does it seem that the very worst bosses - the bullies, the egomaniacs, and the bad leaders - always seem to come out on top, leaving a trail of victims (and broken organizations) in their wake?
Authority Rules. As much as we hate to admit it, we are still very hierarchical. We defer to authority, as illustrated by Stanley Milgram's shock experiments - where people were willing to punish another with painful electric shocks, merely because an authority (a scientist in a white lab coat) told them to do so.
Authority is often given a "free ride." We are reluctant to question authority, even when it is clear that a leader is abusing his or her power.
Bullying and Intimidation. Many bad bosses are simply the adult version of playground bullies. They carefully pick targets for bullying, knowing full well that the targets are unlikely to retaliate, and bystanders will not intervene because they fear becoming the next target.
Bad Bosses Play By Different Rules. Power can become intoxicating, and the very worst leaders are "powerholics" - reveling in the control that their position allows them. Bad leaders develop a sense of entitlement. They believe that they are "above the rules" that govern others. Bully bosses don't see what they do as bullying.
Even worse, the bad guys believe that the ends justify the means. In other words, lying, cheating, even stealing are ok, as long as the bad leader comes out on top.
Poor Organizational Processes. What research shows us, and what I have found in my consulting with organizations, is that when a company has a high percentage of bad bosses, there are usually poor human resources practices in that organization. Top management is out of touch with the rank-and-file, and often doesn't even know that the bullies and bad leaders exist (or they look the other way). Performance evaluations (particularly of bosses) are non-existent or poorly done, and selection and promotion processes are pitiful.
Lack of Good Followership. This is going to sound like blaming the victims, but is really a call to action. All too often, workers feel powerless, intimidated, and incapable of doing anything. These are the same feelings that the bad leaders cultivate and thrive on. Followers need to individually step up and take action, and to band together. Remember: unions didn't develop because bosses were treating workers well.
What to Do?
Take Action. You would be surprised at how many bad leaders are never challenged. People may assume that management knows about the bad leaders and bullies and refuses to take action, but that may not be the case. Yes, in toxic environments, the bad leadership may go all the way to the top, but in many instances the bad bosses go undetected because they are never called out. A diffusion of responsibility occurs and everybody expects others to take action. If everyone were to take action, the incidence of bad leadership would diminish rapidly.
Stop Them Early. This is critical. Once a boss has been in place for a long period of time, it becomes more difficult to dislodge him or her. That is because there is a tendency to assume that long tenure means competence and good performance. Moreover, the very worst bosses quickly learn how to "play the game" - operating under management's radar screen, and building a system of allies and cronies to support and spread their toxic behavior.
Find the Good Leaders. These are the leaders who will provide support and help fight the bullies. Why? Because the good leaders care about the organization and the people in it. You might be one of these people. If so, step up, take action, and help lead the fight against the bad leaders to make your job and organization better.
Generate Opportunities. I'm including this point because readers may be thinking, "Sure he says take action, but my workplace is full of bad leadership from top to bottom. If I take action within my organization, they will destroy me." In those cases, you need to work hard to get yourself out of the toxic environment and into a good one. As a very wise man once told me, "you need to always be on the lookout for opportunities - better jobs, better organizations, rewarding projects - and be ready to pounce on them when you find them."
Here are some resources to fight bullies and bad bosses:
Gary Namie & Ruth Namie (2009). The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job (2nd ed.), Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.