The existing body of literature on organizational leadership often focuses on transformational leadership, that is, the leader who “acts in mutual ways with the followers, appeals to their higher needs, and inspires and motivates followers to move toward a particular purpose” (Bensimon, Neumann, & Birnbaum, 1989). Many studies have been conducted in order to identify the traits of good leadership and explore ways to train managers and supervisors to be better leaders in an effort to enhance workplace engagement, productivity and profitability.

In contradiction, casual conversations with working adults in a variety of work environments provide anecdotal evidence to suggest that toxic leaders and managers – those who are unpredictable, disrespectful and demonstrate little appreciation for staff; or who are short-sighted in goal planning, rigid, and discourage feedback and creativity (Kimura, 2003) – may actually be the norm in workplaces.

There has not yet been much scholarly research done on this type of leadership, nor on the effect these leaders and managers have on their staff members. For example, a Google Scholar search for the key term transformational leadership returned approximately 103,000 results, whereas a search of toxic leadership returned only about 74,000, and a search for what affects employee morale returned about 59,000 results – little more than half the number of results for transformational leadership.

In contrast, popular management and leadership discourse appears to address the problem much more acutely. A popular media search on Google returned over 56 million hits on the phrase toxic leadership, and the same search on Yahoo returned just over 60 million hits including magazine articles, career advice columns, and blogs that span a range of industries and forums from management practice publications to popular psychology and opinion sites.

Here’s what we know:

  • Low employee morale leads to higher turnover rates (Griffeth, Hom & Gaertner, 2000) which cost companies money.
  • The cost of employee turnover can be as high as 30% of annual salary for a lower-skilled worker and up to 250% of annual salary for highly specialized positions (Hester, 2013).
  • Managerial interventions can mitigate this phenomenon (Griffeth, et al., 2000).
  • Employee cynicism (a precursor to turnover) has been empirically attributed to management incompetence and ineffectiveness (Cartwright and Holmes, 2006).
  • Employee satisfaction on the job can be directly influenced by interactions with management (Mobley, Griffeth & Hand, 1979).

Considering these facts, it should be a no-brainer that we start looking at ways to train our first-time managers to be better at interacting with their direct reports.

In a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, Beck and Harter stated, “being a very successful programmer, salesperson, or engineer… is no guarantee that someone will be even remotely adept at managing others.”

They discuss how many companies engage in the practice of promoting workers into management positions based on the merits of the current work they are doing rather than an aptitude for building the relationships that motivate and engage others to do their best work. This type of promotion criteria does not take into account the new manager’s adeptness (or lack of) at building meaningful relationships, communicating effectively, or the “human-oriented” activities that are inherent in the workplace and have been shown to motivate and engage employees and increase employee satisfaction (Luthans, 1988). This typical pathway into management is problematic in that it gives rise to managerial incompetence which, as shown earlier, can drive employee cynicism and turnover.

So what’s the point?

Over 30 years of research has supported the point that promoting individual contributors into management based solely on the merits of their current work while ignoring an absence of aptitude for interpersonal relations is ill-advised, to say the least. Yet companies continue to engage in this practice with seemingly very little thought to the impact on employee relations and engagement.

If companies want to give their new managers the best shot at becoming effective leaders, it’s time to start looking at ways to train them to relate to their people and sustain engagement. Research shows that front-line managers and the perceived care and support they provide to their employees are especially strong influences on employee engagement and disengagement (Saks, 2006).

So, in order for individual contributors to become effective managers they must understand the relational aspects of their new roles. Interpersonal relations training for new managers can work to mitigate the ongoing problem of poor management that leads to employee dissatisfaction and turnover. Subsequently the likelihood of maintaining employee engagement may increase as a result, which may lead to a reduction in employee turnover and save your company’s bottom line.

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