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Counterproductive Leadership: Impact to People and the Organization

by Jakob Hutter

Effective leaders who demonstrate confidence, courage, compassion, and character enable an organization’s success. Stay in any organization long enough, and you will understand that counterproductive leaders can leave serious harm to both the individual and to the organization. These behaviors are not immune from any one individual, but regardless of where it occurs, the short- and long-term effects can be destructive and detrimental to the future success of the organizational climate and culture. It is important then to understand what leaders are responsible for, the impact of counterproductive behaviors, and how you can recognize and overcome these behaviors to benefit your team and organization.

According to ADP 6-22 and AR 600-100, all members of an organization are responsible for shaping a positive command climate. Leaders are responsible to assess, develop, and maintain a positive climate that fosters unit, cohesion, and trust among the team. Defining and detecting counterproductive leadership and behaviors requires the acceptance that counterproductive people can exist, and that is essential to receive information from a variety of sources to make an informed decision.

Counterproductive leadership combines self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that adversely impact the health and welfare of individuals and organization effectiveness. The table below outlines the five types of behaviors and what can be observed with these behaviors.

When a counterproductive leader exhibits one or more of these behaviors, it leads to lower morale, job satisfaction, productivity, and ultimately commitment to the organization’s goals. Counterproductive leaders may be able to attain short term success but, truthfully, it can only be sustained for so long before people are fed up with it. This will impact the long-term health and welfare of personnel and their families, unit retention, and overall unit readiness.

First, counterproductive leadership impacts the health and welfare of the individual and family by showing a lack of concern for their subordinates’ well-being. Their destructive behavior impacts an individual’s level of interests, effectiveness, motivation, and self-esteem. As a result, these negative behaviors can transfer to their family members, inflating the stress and anxiety for the individual and their loved ones. 

Consequently, counterproductive leadership impacts the retention of people. The coveted Department of Defense Form (DD Form) 214 captures separation type and character of service, it does not provide a specific reasoning for why someone leaves the military, in which counterproductive leadership could be identified as a reason to separate. Retaining qualified people is important to preserving the readiness and morale of the organization, and military service provides benefits to incentivize continued service. Yet if the individual is no longer satisfied with continuing their service due to a counterproductive leader, then they will likely pursue a career outside the military.

Thus, if counterproductive leadership behaviors are not addressed by organizational leaders, this adverse behavior can negatively impact the organization’s readiness capabilities to respond effectively to potential threats. To successfully accomplish the mission, it takes a combined effort to create a healthy environment where everyone feels empowered to do their job and be treated with respect. To paraphrase George Reed in his book Tarnished, counterproductive leadership threatens a unit’s productivity, health, satisfaction, ethics, commitment, and readiness.

For followers, Shufelt and Longenecker provide practical lessons for dealing with counterproductive leaders. They state that it is important to be realistic and understand you most likely can’t change a counterproductive leader, but there are some practices that can make you endure the leadership challenges you face. Be able to attain a positive reputation as a subordinate who is capable, competent, trustworthy, and reliable. However, even after you have tried to maintain a positive relationship, and this counterproductive leader is starting to affect your health, know when it’s time to go if able, or report the adverse behavior as appropriate.

For leaders, understand that all are susceptible to displaying these behaviors. Regardless of the circumstances, know that it will likely undermine the organization’s readiness and ability to meet mission requirements effectively, all while sacrificing individual’s well-being. To build and maintain a positive climate, you can assess your organization utilizing the Command Climate Navigator. This provides a step-by-step process to understand your organization better and provide tools to develop and execute an action plan to improve the organization. In addition, take time to actively listen to your subordinates and empower them to accomplish tasks with effective guidance.

The impact of counterproductive leadership impacts the health and welfare of people, the retention of qualified individuals to stay in the organization, and ultimately the overall readiness that affects the ability of the unit to function. If we can have leaders lead with confidence, courage, compassion, and character, then hopefully we can mitigate counterproductive leaders for tomorrow.

CPT Jakob Hutter is a Kansas Army National Guard logistics officer currently serving as a Plans Officer for the 169th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion in Leavenworth, Kansas. In addition, he also serves as the Kansas FLIPL Program Manager. He has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and received his commission from Kansas State University in 2016. He is passionate about the science of Army logistics, the art of military leadership, and combining both to provide effective sustainment.