• Leadership

Passive Leadership and the Damage Done

How the passive boss can be just a toxic as an abusive boss

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A whole raft of things can incline leaders to become passive rather than active drivers of business performance — a fear of being too controlling, work overload, or just a failure to master the complexities of the job they do.

Management thinkers have been banging on for years now about soft leadership skills, the damage done by bullying domineering leaders, and the welcome move from ‘command and control’ to more democratic, dispersed, leadership structures. All very well, but there can be a danger that the autocrats are replaced by passive leaders who have a similarly negative effect on the organization.

In a recent article on Smith Business Insight, Julian Barling, Borden Professor of Leadership at Smith School of Business, Queen's University, highlights how the passive boss, “who is little more than a warm body in a chair, who neither rewards the high performer nor reprimands the office bully” can be just a toxic as an abusive boss.

“There have only been a handful of studies on passive leadership,” says Barling. “For the longest time, we laboured under this misapprehension that as long as we just do nothing, nothing bad can happen. And it turns out that’s definitely not the case.”

Edmund Burke’s famous quote comes to mind: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Barling defines passive leaders as those who avoid or delay taking necessary actions when problems arise and in particular refrain from rewarding and punishing employees when they should. These leaders have a negative impact on how employees perceive their roles which can cause role conflict, ambiguity, and overload. Also, their inability to reward good work and correct bad work causes higher levels of employee stress due to psychological work fatigue. However, he believes the negative consequences of passive leadership can be prevented through leadership development.

Previous research has shown that when leaders fail to fulfil the roles to which they have been assigned, employees are confused and conflicted about their own roles, even to the point where passive leadership leads to more workplace bullying and safety incidents. Barling and colleague Michael Frone from the State University of New York at Buffalo looked deeper into the potential negative effects of passive leadership on employees. In their study, they looked at the responses of almost 2,500 workers in the U.S. Role overload, role conflict, role ambiguity, psychological work fatigue (mental and emotional), mental health, and overall work attitude were examined in the presence of passive leadership.

The research revealed that passive leadership had a detrimental impact on employee role overload, role conflict, and role ambiguity, and that each one of these stressors was positively and independently related to mental work fatigue. They also found that when employees were psychologically worn out from work, their mental health was more likely to be negatively affected, as was their overall work attitudes.

“If you’re an employee who has done something really well and no one says ‘good work’, that’s telling you you’re not that important and your work is not important,” says Barling. Similarly, if a leader fails to call you out on a major mistake or bad work habits, “that tells you no one cares about performance.”

In terms of what causes passive leadership behaviour, one possibility is that leaders are simply overloaded with work. “There’s so much to do — they’re so distracted — that who, in a sense, has the time to go over and tell somebody they just did a good job?” says Barling.

But executives need to make time. Barling suggests that the findings of this research should be reflected in leadership development which, he says has until now, has been largely focused on extremes — bad leadership and good leadership. Instead, he believes management and leadership development programs, aimed a generation of new leaders, should be more nuanced and should explain the consequence of passivity and failure to act.

“What this study tells us is we need to draw people’s attention to the nature of negative leadership,” says Barling. “We’re pretty sure we can make a difference through leadership education.”

Access the original research published in Stress and Health, July 2016

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