The Four Types of Dysfunctional Executives and How to Handle Them (2018)

Manfred Kets de Vries & Caroline Rook

Nearly half of adults in the US have reported experiencing a psychiatric disorder at some point in their lives

According to a 2014 Harvard study, nearly half of adults in the United States have reported experiencing a psychiatric disorder at some point in their lives. In Asia, where mental health awareness is arguably less widespread, the numbers are nonetheless striking: For example, one in four South Koreans report suffering from psychiatric issues.


It would be unrealistic to assume that mental health sufferers don’t bring their afflictions with them to work. For leaders, it’s quite the opposite: Over a long period of time, their responsibilities can become too stressful, which can potentially trigger or aggravate pre-existing psychological issues. As leadership scholars and coaches, we have observed that when influential executives exhibit dysfunctional behavioural patterns, the disorder can become contagious. If the issues go unaddressed, entire organisations often internalise the dysfunction.


Most mental health issues present in organisations may not be serious enough to require clinical intervention. On the more minor end of the spectrum, non-medical professionals, such as coaches and even colleagues, can help contain the damage dysfunctional executives bring to themselves and those around them.


Basic understanding and empathy can go a long way toward recalling leaders to their best selves. Here we outline four types of toxic behavioural patterns common to leaders and some advisable means of addressing them.


The narcissistic leader


We all possess a certain amount of narcissism. In small doses, it can be a positive thing, providing a basis for self-confidence, self-expression and assertiveness. In order to get ahead, organisational leaders usually have to draw from their own well of narcissism. However, when they drink too deep – displaying delusions of grandeur along with selfish and entitled behaviours – the atmosphere around them can become toxic.


Giving honest feedback to narcissists can be a challenge, due to their skill at deflecting unwelcome information. Team feedback, which is harder to ignore and deny, is more effective than one-on-one evaluations.


The bipolar leader


Bipolar leaders suffer from wild mood swings. In the manic state, they may exude infectious enthusiasm that elevates morale and motivation. But sooner or later, euphoria gives way to a deep, unshakable gloom as the depressive state comes in. Fatigue, pessimism and social withdrawal signal the onset of the downswing.


Bipolar disorder can destroy the lives of sufferers, alienating them from family and friends, increasing their propensity for drug and alcohol abuse, and placing their careers in jeopardy. It is important to emphasise to them that their behaviours come at a heavy price. Self-care will necessarily involve delegating decisions and tasks to others where possible, thus enabling a levelling-out of their untamed emotions.


The psychopathic leader


Psychopaths are defined by their inability to empathise with others. They often maintain a socially pleasing demeanour, which serves only to mask their ruthlessness. Destructive and unethical behaviours that would shame others are the psychopath’s stock-in-trade. They are hypnotically convincing in projecting a façade of success – so much so that they find it easy to win followers.


Confronting the psychopath can be especially challenging because they are adept they at manipulating others. Their lack of empathy prevents them from grasping how their actions affect those around them. The best chance of success will come from 360-degree feedback, encircling the psychopath with a reckoning that is difficult to escape. Even so, feedback should be followed by a rigorous monitoring process to ensure the change is not mere lip service.


The obsessive-compulsive leader


Obsessive-compulsive leaders often disguise their disorder as “perfectionism”. Their attention to detail and insistence on high quality can be organisational assets. However, when nothing less than perfection is accepted, innovation grinds to a halt. The freedom to fail is a prerequisite for generating new ideas. Their inability to be flexible makes it hard for obsessive-compulsive leaders to build productive working relationships. They will likely earn a reputation among their colleagues for being stubborn, highly guarded and selfish.


These leaders are often surprised to learn that their behaviour is negatively perceived. Corrective conversations with them can be productive, if they are encouraged to imagine what “good enough”, rather than “perfect”, would look like in their daily lives. They also may respond well to being reminded of everything they’re missing out on socially and even in their family lives, because of their time- and energy-consuming perfectionism.


Erasing the stigma


In many countries, the stigma around conversations about mental health in the workplace is beginning to lift. Organisations and teams should embrace this development by creating space within their work routines for issues to be raised before they grow into endemic problems.


This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2018


Read our collection of blogs and articles on leadership.


INSEAD Knowledge, 2018

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