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The Absence of High Quality Connections?

We would all like to work in organizations where high quality connections abound. What if the connections between employees and leadership are . . . less than high quality? According to a recent report by Ken Matos, Lead People Scientist at Culture Amp, 56% of employees report working for managers who could be described as “toxic leaders”. Toxic leaders engage in abusive behavior aimed at bullying and controlling others for the purpose of advancing their own ego and advancing their own careers at the expense of others. Not surprisingly, toxic leadership is often accompanied by another problematic aspect of work life: a highly competitive, “dog-eat-dog” corporate culture which Matos labels a “win-or-die culture” after the interpersonal tactics popularized by the HBO series, Game of Thrones.

In a recent study, Matos, George Mason University graduate student Xue Lei, and I sat down with survey data from 1,000 U.S. workers to try to understand the consequences of “win-or-die” corporate cultures and managers whose behavior could conceivably contribute to the opposite of high quality connections among employees. The answer surprised us: employees (primarily men) subjected to a combination of highly competitive “win-or-die” cultures and abusive leadership reported undiminished and, in some instances, higher work engagement and meaning.

While it is important to interpret these results cautiously (correlation is not causation), the results offer some insight into why “win-or-die” cultures persist despite contributing to some employee trends that are deeply worrying from an HR perspective (in our study, this included high stress, greater work-life conflict, and high rates of turnover). “Win-or-die cultures”, in other words, are not merely employee survival; employees remain in them because they find the work deeply meaningful and engaging, despite how tough they can be interpersonally. A recent Wired article on the culture of Tesla and Elon Musk’s leadership supports this idea.

How does this combination of a tough culture and abusive leadership translate into relationships among employees? This is an important question, one that we’re actively exploring in current research studies. Our current thinking? High quality connections can arise not just from exemplary leaders who set a good example through their behavior, but also when employees bond together over extremely tough work conditions and difficult bosses.

Drinks or yoga after work anyone?

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