Toxic Leadership: The Characteristics of Colluders

In the last article on toxic leadership, we delved into the characteristics of susceptible followers. In this article, Dr Paul Vorster looks a little more closely at colluders and differentiates them from susceptible followers by understanding their motivations and describing their behaviours.



Toxic Leadership: The Characteristics of Colluders


Dr Paul Vorster (The Ethics Institute)

In the last article on toxic leadership, we delved into the characteristics of susceptible followers. In this article, we look a little more closely at colluders by (1) differentiating them from susceptible followers, (2) understanding their motivations, and (3) describing their behaviours. It is important to understand that the relationships between colluders and toxic leaders are not well quantified in the literature. However numerous sources of information are available about toxic leader – colluder interactions; their nature, and the motivations and behaviour that drives them.

Distinguishing colluders from susceptible followers

Padilla, Hogan & Kaiser (2007) indicate that susceptible followers (individuals who are open to the manipulation of toxic leaders and support the leader) tend to do what the leader tells them because they are afraid of the consequences of not doing so. In other words, susceptible followers conform to the will of the toxic leader because going against the leader may result in a negative outcome for them.  

In general, followers tend to have low levels of self-esteem, unmet needs (that the leader promises to fulfil), and low levels of psychological maturity, which translates into poorer critical thinking capability and poorer judgment (Padilla et al., 2007; Zimbardo, 2007). Toxic leaders take advantage of these characteristics to gain the support of followers by offering to meet their needs, using emotive arguments to bypass their logic, and/or by providing structure in ambiguous and threatening situations, that followers wish to avoid. Susceptible followers, therefore, have a tendency to conform to the toxic leader because they are fearful of the consequences of not doing so, or because it is comfortable for them to do so.

Additionally, Zimbardo (2007), Asch (1951, 1956),  Darley & Latané (1968, 1970) and Milgram (1963) have demonstrated that people are generally susceptible to certain social influencers such as role conformity (doing what others do), group apathy (bystander effect) and, obedience to authority (upward diffusion of responsibility), which can override moral thinking and judgment (refer to “Toxic Leadership: The Characteristics of Susceptible Followers”). These forces are often exploited by toxic leaders to influence individuals to do their bidding (usually without individuals being consciously aware of the influence). 

Consequently, susceptible followers can be split into three categories; (1) those that follow the toxic leader to avoid personal loss/harm (“Avoidant Followers”); (2) those that follow the toxic leader because they were manipulated by the leader without being aware of this happening (“Influenceable Followers”); and (3) followers who do as they are told because it is comfortable to do so (“Passive Followers”).

Colluders on the other hand usually support the toxic leader by actively engaging in morally dubious behaviours because there is a direct benefit for them to do so. In other words, colluders are not duped into immoral or destructive behaviours, nor are they fearful of the consequences of not doing what the toxic leader wants, but consciously engage in these behaviours because they help meet the selfish needs of the colluder. In other words, colluders are often consciously aware and willing to engage in actions the toxic leader prescribes because there is a benefit for them. To understand why colluders support the mandate of toxic leaders, a deeper insight into their motivation and characteristics is required.

The characteristics and motivations of colluders

Colluders tend to be ambitious, share the same values and motivations as the toxic leader, and are selfish in nature (Padilla et al., 2007). To better understand these aspects, we briefly explore them in the next few sections by unpacking the characteristics proposed and consolidated by Padilla, Hogan, and Kaiser (2007) in their scientifically peer reviewed journal article entitled: “The Toxic Triangle: Destructive Leaders, Susceptible Followers, and Conductive Environments”.

  1. 1.                  Colluders are driven by ambition and self-interest

Colluders generally have a strong desire for status and success. This does not set them apart from morally adhering high performing employees, as these individuals often also have powerful ambitions and a strong need to gain status in organisations. In this way, colluders are often seen as driven and goal-oriented employees and are difficult to distinguish from their high performing, but ethical, counterparts in organisations over the short-term.

What sets colluders apart from morally-adhering high-performing employees is how their ambition is enacted. Firstly, colluders are selfish and tend to be driven by goals, projects and decisions that can benefit them maximally. For this reason, they are not really concerned with what others want or need, but rather about how they can obtain the greatest self-benefit out of any situation. Consequently, colluders often harm others in their selfish pursuits and believe strongly in the adage that “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette”.

There is thus a direct human cost to the actions of colluders as they will step on other employees to get ahead in the organisation. In essence, colluders are preoccupied with “getting ahead” in organisations and this preoccupation often makes them insensitive to the needs, feelings and wellbeing of others. It is, therefore, the self-interested nature of the ambition colluders enact that makes them destructive and dangerous to others.

  1. 2.                  Colluders share the same behavioural characteristics and values as the toxic leader

Paulhus and Williams (2002) drew attention to toxic characteristics by delineating what is referred to as the “Dark Triad” of personality. These are overlapping behavioural characteristics that are usually found in destructive/toxic individuals. The dark triad is composed of three distinct behavioural elements namely: (1) Machiavellianism (a manipulative, cynical and interpersonally cold orientation towards others); (2) Psychopathy (high risk taking and impulsivity with low empathy and anxiety); and (3) Narcissism (grandiosity, entitlement, arrogance and dominance).

Toxic leaders often have the behavioural orientation outlined by Paulhus and Williams. But what is more interesting is that colluders are naturally drawn to this type of behaviour because it is congruent with their own behavioural characteristics (both colluders and followers often have dark triad characteristics). This is a “like selects like” scenario where the leadership style suits the prospective follower and the follower thus becomes a colluder enacting the same behaviours as their leader. The same applies to values and beliefs. Colluders will often follow a leader if they believe in the leader’s cause or share their values. Often these values are egocentric, selfish, and opportunistic in nature.

This congruence between colluders and toxic leaders sets colluders apart from susceptible followers who do not necessarily share the same behavioural orientations or values as the toxic leader but are simply susceptible to the leader’s influence in some way.

An uneasy alliance

 Toxic leaders and their colluders often enact an ‘uneasy alliance’ with one another. There is an unwritten social contract between the two parties. This contract is based on a simple motif; “You benefit me, I benefit you”.

Colluders and toxic leaders evaluate three aspects of their relationship constantly: (1) perceived/real benefit; (2) perceived/real dependency; (3) perceived/real ambition. We discuss these a little more below.

1. The perceived/real benefit

This is the degree of benefit the toxic leader obtains from the colluder, and reciprocally the benefit the colluder obtains from the toxic leader. This benefit is quantified in a number of ways.

Colluders benefit the toxic leader by protecting the leader (hiding shady dealings, or protecting status of the leader); providing the leader with active support (the colluder champions the toxic leader’s ideas publicly); and by cementing the influence of the toxic leader’s leadership base (popular colluders draw many followers to the toxic leader’s way of thinking and influence). These aspects are of the greatest importance to the toxic leader.

Colluders on the other hand also benefit. Firstly, they obtain quicker status and rank in the organisation (status improvement). They may also obtain direct benefit from leader-colluder interaction (i.e., money, more power, or support). Additionally, the “good colluder” (who does not interfere with the toxic leader) understands that he is also a follower and is privileged to be in the service of the leader (this is a strange dichotomy as they seek power, but also dislike ambiguity. Refer to Erich Fromm’s “The Fear of Freedom” for more on this paradoxical personality).

“Bad colluders” on the other hand seek to eventually replace the toxic leader. These colluders are referred to as “bad” because although they benefit the toxic leader initially, they often have the ambition, power, and support to usurp the toxic leader in the long run.         

A good example, of a “bad” colluder, was Ernst Röhm leader of the Sturmabteilung (otherwise known as the SA, or Brown Shirts) in Nazi Germany. Röhm was executed by Hitler during “The Night of the Long Knives” because the SA (who were a 2 million strong civil defence force) were becoming too powerful and influential. Before Hitler dissolved the SA, Röhm and his followers were pivotal to Hitler’s cause and his rise to power. Unfortunately for Röhm, his success and influence made him dangerous to Hitler. Hitler was afraid that the SA would rival his absolute control over Germany and thus he decided to remove Röhm.

In other words, the toxic leader wants colluders who are in a position of power and can help them meet their self-interested goals. However, colluders should never reach a point where they attain status and power too close to the level of the toxic leader. The toxic leader prefers a solid power buffer between himself/herself and the colluder.

2. Perceived/real dependency

Some colluders are wholly dependent on the toxic leader. This may be because they were put into office by the leader, or because they are indebted to the leader in some way. These types of colluders do not want to take power from the toxic leader, but rather are wholly dependent on the toxic leader. This dependency is so strong that the colluder cannot stand against the leader, and feels obliged to push the leader’s agenda. These types of colluders are preferred by the toxic leader as they are passive (do not want to rival the toxic leader) and have the benefits of susceptible followers (i.e., they conform).

In other colluders, the level of dependency on the toxic leader may be more or less. However, if the colluder is not dependent in some way on the leader (i.e., through benefits or the like) then the colluder may become less controllable and therefore more dangerous to the toxic leader.

3. Perceived/real ambition

As mentioned earlier, toxic leaders prefer some power distance between themselves and colluders. Although toxic leaders need colluders, they never want to be in a position where they need the colluder more than the colluder needs them. This would undermine their autocratic need for control and power. It is important to remember, however, that colluders behaviour and values are often congruent with that of the toxic leader.

This has consequences as colluders tend to be selfishly ambitious as well. This need for ambition may be useful to the toxic leader initially as colluders often have a strong power-base of their own that can easily be consolidated and controlled by the toxic leader if they gain the colluder’s support. Additionally, the toxic leader can provide what the ambitious colluder wants, more power and influence. Unfortunately, there is a limit to how high ambitious colluders can climb the corporate ladder under the control of a toxic leader. For this reason, ambitious colluders are not a good long-term prospect for the toxic leader and they will turn on the leader if it benefits them and their ambitious motivations.

In summary

Colluders operate quite differently from susceptible followers. Firstly, they are active agents who align themselves with the toxic leader in order to gain some benefit from the relationship. This also makes colluders dangerous to the toxic leader as colluders have the same motives. Colluders and toxic leaders, therefore, form an uneasy alliance where they re-evaluate the relationship in a cyclical manner. If colluders no longer benefit from the toxic leader, they will seek to replace the leader or to dismantle their loyalty to the leader. If the toxic leader no longer benefits from a colluder, or if the colluder reaches similar levels of power and status to the toxic leader, then the toxic leader may try to replace/remove the colluder or withdraw support. In this way, colluders are toxic leaders in the making and can be distinguished by the level of benefit they obtain from the relationship.

In the next article.

In the next article on toxic leadership, we look at some defences that can be put into place to protect the organisation from toxic leadership taking hold. We also outline strategies to make followers less conforming and more autonomous, thus undermining the power-base of the toxic leader. 


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