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Have a toxic boss? Join the club

Jose David Morales for The Boston Globe

By Globe Staff 

Toxic bosses have long been a reality for many beleaguered workers. The volatile manager who yells and kicks filing cabinets. The condescending director who blames everyone but himself when things go wrong. The demanding supervisor with no patience for employees who have to leave early to pick up a sick child.

And now we have Donald Trump, arguably the most high-profile boss in the world, who has a — shall we say — somewhat aggressive leadership style. He has been known to publicly question his subordinates (see: the steady stream of statements humiliating Attorney General Jeff Sessions), announce huge personnel changes without informing his department heads (see: the sudden ban on transgender people in the military), and revel in unusual proclamations of loyalty (see: the Cabinet meeting at which members publicly ingratiated themselves to Trump, among other instances).

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While there has been some movement toward kinder, gentler, more empathetic leaders, some fear the president’s headline-generating hostility may again make it seem OK to be a bad boss.

“It’s a resetting of standards of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable,” said James Bailey, a professor of leadership at George Washington University School of Business. “If the president can do this, why can’t I?”

“There might be this sort of unintentional and unconscious creep,” he added.

If abusive bosses are feeling emboldened, though, there are a few recent cautionary tales they may want to keep in mind. To wit: Uber head Travis Kalanick and the late Fox News head Roger Ailes, who were both forced out amid sexual-harassment scandals. Then there’s Wells Fargo chief executive John Stumpf, who was excoriated for his “gutless leadership” by Senator Elizabeth Warren after he publicly blamed his employees for creating millions of fake accounts — which they did in order to make sales goals set by the bank. He retired a month later. And Volkswagen’s American CEO, who told Congress that “a couple of software engineers” were responsible for installing devices to cheat emissions tests in 11 million cars; he was out shortly thereafter.

Trump, of course, remains on the job, but his plummeting popularity and foundering legislative agenda might give pause to those considering a scorched-earth approach to leadership.

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But they are still out there, in high numbers: More than half of workers say their superiors are toxic, prone to explosive outbursts, berating employees, or taking credit for others’ ideas, according to a survey of 1,000 college-educated employees by the workforce consulting firm Life Meets Work.

Part of the problem lies with the personalities of those who rise to the top. People are usually promoted because they’re good performers, not good leaders. And high achievers tend to be confident and competitive, not focused on praising or accommodating employees, workplace analysts say.

They are also under intense pressure to succeed.

“Sadly, the vast majority of CEOs aren’t really big people people,” said Bob Kelleher, president of the Employee Engagement Group in Woburn. “They’re being managed by the board, they’re being managed by private equity firms, they’re being managed for results . . . not for being nice to everybody.”

Few people are natural-born leaders, according to 2015 Gallup research, which found that only one in 10 has what it takes to be a great manager and that companies fail to pick a candidate with the right talent 82 percent of the time.

Tyrannical leaders also drive away employees — a 2015 Gallup poll found that half of US workers had quit a job to get away from a manager — and can affect the productivity of the ones who stick around.

Marc Prosser, a former small-business consultant, saw this firsthand when he worked with a financial startup in Boston a few years ago. The CEO’s tirades could be heard 50 feet away, Prosser said, and when something went wrong, his default response was, “You incompetent [expletive], why did you [expletive] this up?”

As a result, employees avoided him at all costs, and they often ended up at odds with the CEO on a project because they hadn’t checked in with him along the way.

“People who start companies are basically battling the world,” said Prosser, who now runs the small-business education site FitSmallBusiness.com. “You get an inflated sense of your own power.”

Publicly humiliating employees can create a chaotic environment and cause other workers to lose confidence in the boss, workplace consultants say. The more petty the attack, the more employees will feel at risk. This can create less-loyal employees who are prone to act out and, say, leak damaging information to the press.

Unlike in other countries, such as Germany, where workers can elect representatives to serve on the board of directors, corporate boards in the United States don’t often oust leaders for being tyrants, especially if many of the members were picked by the CEO, said Bailey, the leadership professor. And Wall Street investors, who are loath to fire a leader who’s making money, can compound the problem.

But intolerance for bad bosses has been growing, particularly as the workforce is increasingly dominated by millennials, who are more likely to see authority figures as equals, workplace analysts say. And with plentiful job openings and companies desperate to keep talented workers, supervisors know they can’t get away with what that they might have in the past.

Millennials are accustomed to having immediate access to people in power through Twitter and other social-media channels, said leadership coach Kristi Hedges. Sites such as the job-search forum Glassdoor allow workers to anonymously and publicly critique their bosses, giving employees the power to affect the company’s image.

“We don’t tolerate [bad behavior] like we used to,” Hedges said. “We see that there’s support for people who want to stand up to it.”

Last year, Glassdoor named Bain and Co.’s Bob Bechek the site’s top-rated boss. Bechek noted in a recent interview that he considers empathy key to long-term success — a quality that has received a lot of mileage in business circles in recent years. In 2014, the London consultancy the Empathy Business launched an Empathy Index, an annual ranking of companies that takes into account ethics, company culture, leadership, CEO approval ratings, and scandals, among other measures.

Last year’s top-rated company was Facebook, which has an Empathy Lab dedicated to making the site accessible to people with disabilities.

Humility also pays off for executives, according to new research from the University of Michigan that found that a CEO who seeks feedback on how he or she is doing can improve the firm’s bottom line by increasing confidence among the members of an executive team.

Listening is a top-rated leadership skill as well, according to an online survey commissioned by Hedges, the executive coach, as is showing emotion.

But with Trump as a highly visible and highly combative role model, leadership experts wonder if this movement toward more mild-mannered bosses may be derailed. Just as incidents of hate-related violence and harassment increased after Trump was elected, could there be an uptick in bosses behaving badly?

Kelleher, the employee engagement consultant, is hopeful that, despite all the vitriolic tweets coming from Washington, leaders with an “altruistic gene” will become the norm. More companies have been turning to him to rehabilitate problematic managers, including a Boston professional services firm with a talented, high-achieving woman who “frightens everybody,” Kelleher said.

Her saving grace, Kelleher said, is that she is self-aware and wants to change.

Trump has shown no signs of self-awareness, despite the fact he’s been widely criticized for his management practices. Former General Electric head and Trump supporter Jack Welch told CNBC he would give the president a “D-minus,” adding, “I’m being an easy grader here.”

But the abrupt departure of foul-mouthed White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who threatened to fire his entire staff, may signal a shift in what’s acceptable. It was the new chief of staff, John Kelly, who forced out Scaramucci during his first day on the job, and the retired Marine Corps general is widely seen as a natural leader.

“I believe in respect, tolerance, and diversity of opinion,” Kelly said during his confirmation hearing as Homeland Security secretary, his previous job.

Perhaps, eventually, those beliefs will rub off on Trump.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.