Tough Bosses Make Poor Leaders

Today's workers are less tolerant of abuse.

Posted Sep 04, 2019

One of the most persistent—and incorrect—beliefs about leadership is that being tough is an effective way to get results. Toughness can come in a variety of forms, including impossibly high standards, demanding workloads, even yelling at team members. But in most cases, these methods for motivating others don’t work. Research suggests that good results happen despite —and not because of — tough leadership.

Unfortunately, the uncivil behavior associated with tough leadership is on the rise. Twenty years ago, 25 percent of workers said they were treated rudely at least once a week. By 2011, that number was up to 50 percent of all workers.

Icons8 team on Unsplash
Source: Icons8 team on Unsplash

Today, workers are less willing to tolerate the abuses of a tough boss. Around 25 percent of individuals who are the target of a leader’s unreasonable demands or abusive behavior will quit. And of those who simply witness a leader’s bad behavior, research shows that the turnover rate for those workers is around 20 percent. So tough leadership comes at a high cost.

Of course, there are situations that call for high standards, demanding workloads, and maybe even yelling. When the company’s future is at stake or when the outcome of an effort holds spectacular promise, team members may be willing to tolerate abusive behavior from their leader. Steve Jobs was notoriously tough, but after he returned to the company in 1993, Apple created the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPod Nano, iPhone, and iPad.  

But this is rarely the case. Far more often, leadership success comes from a team effort, and it’s hard to build a team when 45 percent of the team is considering leaving because of the leader.

So why do some leaders choose a tough leadership style? Although these leaders may justify their style on the basis of the good of the company, a tough style may be motivated by personal, rather than team or company, advancement.  When the goal of personal advancement leads to abusive behavior, the leader is showing signs of what researchers refer to as the Dark Triad of leadership—the qualities of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and maybe psychopathy. These qualities can lead to personal success for the leader but at a huge cost for the people around the leader and, ultimately, the company.  

Unless we’re certain we’re working for someone like Steve Jobs, or the company’s future is at stake, it’s best to avoid a tough boss. And it’s best for the company to step in and stop this kind of abusive behavior. Aside from high rates of turnover, tough leadership can create increased absenteeism, avoiding work by avoiding the leader, and maybe even lawsuits.