Toxic Leaders and Jerks

Joseph Reagle

Horrible bosses


The no asshole rule

Dirty dozen

Toxic colleagues

A poll of several thousand managers/employees showed:

Pelletier 2010


Table 1: Harmful behaviors and leadership theories

  • Abusive
  • Tyrannical
  • Destructive
  • Bullying
  • Toxic
  • Laissez-faire

Bad vs toxic?

Subjectivity: Is someone’s jerk another’s inspiration??

Study 1 (Qual)

Figure 1

Why do you think some things are noticed by “you” rather than to “other,” and vice-versa?

Study 2 (Quant)

Table 3

Are you surprised about degree of agreement about harmfulness?

Weaknesses and limitations?

  • Not a random sample.


Identify variables associated with the interpretation of potentially toxic expression (e.g., intention).

  • intention (unthinking, positive, negative)
  • effect (unnoticed, unaffected, affected)
  • specificity (person, group)
  • context (circumstances, norms)
  • modality (verbal, nonverbal, online)
  • tactics (Table 2, p. 385) …

Tactics 1

  1. Attack on followers’ self-esteem
    • Demeaning/marginalizing, or degrading
    • Ridiculing
    • Mocking
  2. Lack of integrity
    • Being deceptive
    • Blaming others for leader’s mistakes
    • Bending the rules to meet goals
  3. Abusiveness
    • Displaying anger
    • Emotional volatility
    • Coercing
  4. Social exclusion
    • Excluding individuals from social functions

Tactics 2

  1. Divisiveness
    • Ostracizing employee
    • Inciting employee to chastise another
  2. Promoting inequity
    • Exhibiting favoritism (e.g., selective in promotions)
    • Favoring members of entourage
  3. Threat to followers’ security
    • Using physical acts of aggression
    • Threatening employees’ job security
    • Forcing people to endure hardships
  4. Laissez-faire
    • Ignoring comments/ideas
    • Disengagement
    • Stifling dissent
    • Being rigid

Michael Scott








Implications: What to do?

No asshole rule

  1. How to implement the rule, enforce it, and keep it alive
    • weave the rule into hiring and firing policies
    • apply the rule to customers and clients
    • pay attention to status and power differences
    • focus on conversations and interactions
    • teach people how to effectively fight

  1. How to stop your “inner jerk” from getting out
    • don’t join other jerks
    • walkout – or stay away as much as you can
    • seen coworkers as rivals and enemies is a dangerous game
    • see yourself as others do
    • face your past

  1. When asshole’s reign: tips for surviving nasty people and workplaces
    • reframing: change how you see things
      • hope for the best; expect the worst
      • develop indifference and emotional detachment
    • look for small wins
    • limit your exposure
    • build pockets of safety, support, and sanity
    • fight and win the right small battles

Concluding questions?