Can Bad Managers Become Great Leaders?

The short answer is yes—if they take the right steps to curb counterproductive behavior.

Science confirms what many executives already know: that good leadership goes deeper than being smart, skilled and visionary.

The true influence of a great leader can be measured only by their impact on others. After all, a leader’s behavior directly affects the energy of their people: in one study, 59% of people said their leader has the largest influence on their personal energy. So the less constructive leaders’ behaviors are, the worse their organizations will perform.

What a leader does—and how they do it—has real consequences for their bottom line. And toxic bosses, research shows, can have wide-ranging negative effects on a business, leading to nearly $24 billion in healthcare costs and productivity lost.

Good leadership requires self-control, emotional energy and effort. The combination of job-related stress, and the energy and effort required for self-control results in what scientists call “chronic power stress”: the accumulated weight of responsibility for the success and failure of organizations and their people. Often, the more senior the role, the heavier this burden becomes.

Without a doubt, leadership is a stressful role. Chronic stress is a mainstay of the position, with acute stress punctuating the experience. In response to this stress, some leaders hit their stride. For other leaders, studies find, it can be a catalyst for counterproductive work behavior that goes against the legitimate interests of an organization. In the extreme, stress can trigger hostile verbal and non-verbal behaviors from leaders and supervisors toward employees.

Effective leaders know how to strike the balance between being firm and being fair, especially in times of high stress. Instead of buckling under pressure, these leaders use this stress to fuel their purpose and propel positive action. In turn, they foster positive work climates that, research shows, can increase productivity, innovation and motivation—potentially up to 30% on the bottom line.

But why do some leaders act the way they do? It turns out there may be, in part, a neurological explanation. Scientists studying the relationship between well-being and leadership found that the brain’s prefrontal cortex (or PFC) plays a key role in the quality of leadership behavior—and whether or not leaders behave badly.

Dysfunctions in the prefrontal cortex can be either more “chronic” or situational. Acute stress, like sudden executive turnover, may disrupt typical PFC functioning, causing negative actions such as handling emotions poorly or shifting to autopilotIn cases of “chronic” dysfunction, this can result from genetic predisposition, traumatic brain injury, adverse early life experiences or chronic stress. 

The PFC supports our leadership skills and social behaviors. It also contributes to a wide variety of cognitive functions—focusing attention, anticipating cause-effect relationships, managing emotional reactions, planning, impulse control, mental flexibility. The parts of the PFC come together to integrate new social and environmental information with existing priorities, come up with adaptive behavioral plans based on that input, and regulate the emotions and behaviors needed to carry out those plans. One group of researchers showed that disrupting the right PFC increased risk-taking behaviors and caused people to be less likely to punish the unfair behavior of others. 

How stress impacts the structure, function and connectivity of the PFC may influence how leaders act. The prefrontal cortex predicts counterproductive behavior due to its role in inhibiting inappropriate and automatic responses, people’s capacity for self-control, and how people interpret emotionally charged situations and information. So, when neural executive control is functioning below optimal levels, it is more than likely that leaders are, too.

The PFC is critical to helping a boss become what we envision effective leaders to be: level-headed, organized, efficient, forward thinking and fair. It’s no wonder that it is part of the “executive network”: when the PFC is not functioning optimally, leaders and organizations can suffer.

Leaders can address—and change—counterproductive behavior. For some leaders, the road to better behavior may be building a mindfulness practice, like paying attention to your breath. For others, it may be prioritizing time with friends and family when away from work. Leaders can also reduce stress and improve behaviors by making relaxation a part of their daily routine—writing in a journal, stretching every morning, making time for hobbies. By focusing on rest, leaders can prevent themselves from getting pushed to the edge in the first place.

Ultimately, what we have, neurologically, is neither predetermined nor permanent. We can shape and reshape our behaviors at a cellular level. What it takes is thoughtful intention. Leaders can tackle their behaviors head-on, taking deliberate steps to confront and correct counterproductive actions.

It’s never too late to become the best version of ourselves. Neuroscience is showing us how to do just that.

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