Toxic bosses have highly engaged teams, and people stay longer to work for them. How come?

Many organisations understand the importance of engaged employees but are unaware of the paradox that toxic leaders can have a highly motivated team. At least on paper …

Humiliating experience

In 2008, Apple launched ‘MobileMe’, a new internet service that synchronises email, contact information and calendar information across all Apple devices. But the launch was not a smooth one. There were all kinds of technical glitches, leading to many dissatisfied customers and negative media attention.

Steve Jobs was furious and called the MobileMe team together. He angrily asked what the application was supposed to do. After someone on the team calmly explained, Jobs replied: “And why the hell doesn’t it do just that?” He continued: “You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation … You should hate each other for having let each other down.” The team left the meeting room deeply humiliated, and not long after, the leader of the MobileMe team was fired.

The paradox

Most people will shiver at this example. So you would think that if people in a team are being disrespectful and rude to each other or if there is bullying, people are demotivated and prefer to look for another job as soon as possible.

But a study by ‘Life Meets Work’ a few years ago showed that no less than 68% of people who report to a toxic boss are very committed, while this percentage is 35% for people who do not work for such a boss. It also turned out that people in those teams stayed two years longer on average.

Fear and short-lived

It was a completely unexpected outcome, but digging deeper gave more clarity. It turned out that people who work in a toxic environment are often afraid of becoming the target of bullying and thus work harder. It looks like they are very involved, but that has nothing to do with intrinsic motivation. They simply try to avoid pain and conflict.

The seemingly positive effects do not last long, as eventually people get burned out and then drop out, leave or go ‘quiet-quitting’. In addition, people who are not very motivated or who find a good atmosphere in the team important leave much sooner. They quickly discover that things will not get any better with the arrival of the new boss and decide it’s time to go.

Understand what you are measuring

Toxic bosses do not boost engagement; people who are very engaged just persevere longer. When less motivated people leave, the KPI for engagement automatically goes up.

Also, toxic leaders are a magnet for toxic employees. They thrive under a toxic boss and they therefore score high on engagement. The KPIs are green, and it seems like the new boss is doing a fantastic job, while in reality, the team is slowly eroding.

Steering only on a KPI for engagement can be disastrous. It requires enormous caution in how you measure and what you conclude. But there is an easy solution. Just walk around now and then, talk to the people, and use your antennae. If you observe well and sincerely listen to the employees, you will figure out who the toxic leaders are in your organisation.

This article was originally published in Dutch on – the platform for HR executives. 

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