Article: Under the radar: Can employee surveys uncover toxic leadership?


Under the radar: Can employee surveys uncover toxic leadership?

How standardised employee surveys fail to detect toxic leadership
Under the radar: Can employee surveys uncover toxic leadership?

Standardised employee surveys – long considered a cornerstone of organisational health assessment – may be failing to uncover a critical issue lurking beneath the surface: toxic leadership.

Research from Binghamton University's School of Management reveals that these surveys, which often rely on overly simplistic questionnaires, are missing the mark when it comes to detecting harmful leadership practices.

This oversight has significant implications for organisations, potentially keeping toxic leaders in positions of power and hindering company growth.

The blind spot in employee surveys

Surveys have traditionally been used to gauge employee satisfaction, engagement, and leadership effectiveness. However, the research suggests that these research instruments may be too superficial to capture the nuances of toxic leadership behaviours.

Employees often rely on their long-term memory and broad perceptions when answering survey questions, overlooking specific instances of negative behaviour, especially if they are infrequent.

Moreover, if employees are generally satisfied with their job, they tend to focus on the positive aspects of their work environment, further obscuring the negative impact of toxic leaders.

Read More: How to handle a toxic boss

The perils of misinterpreting survey results

The study’s findings show the danger of relying solely on survey results to assess leadership effectiveness.

If organisations fail to recognise the limitations of these surveys, they risk promoting and retaining toxic leaders. This, in turn, can lead to a host of negative consequences.

Toxic leadership can erode employee morale, decrease productivity, increase turnover, and create a hostile work environment.

These effects can create ripples throughout the organisation, ultimately harming its bottom line.

Beyond likability: Assessing leadership effectiveness

Another critical issue raised by the research is the distinction between liking a leader and evaluating their effectiveness.

Survey responses may reflect employees’ personal feelings towards their leader rather than an objective assessment of their performance.

This can lead to a distorted view of leadership effectiveness, where popular but ineffective leaders are rewarded while competent but less charismatic leaders are overlooked.

To address the limitations of current employee surveys, organisations need to adopt a more nuanced approach to leadership assessment. This includes asking more targeted questions that focus on specific behaviours rather than relying on broad generalisations.

Organisations should also consider incorporating other assessment methods, such as 360-degree feedback, interviews, and observations, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of leadership effectiveness.

Read More: Quit-Tok trend exposing toxic workplaces

Redesigning employee surveys for deeper insights

To enhance the effectiveness of employee surveys in identifying toxic leadership, consider these recommendations:

Behavioural focus

Instead of asking broad questions about leadership effectiveness, focus on specific behaviours that are indicative of toxic leadership, such as public belittlement, explosive outbursts, or micromanagement.

Incident recall

Encourage employees to recall specific incidents where they experienced or witnessed toxic behaviour. This can provide valuable insights into the frequency and severity of these behaviours.

Anonymity and confidentiality

Assure employees that their responses will be kept anonymous and confidential to encourage honest feedback.

Multiple data points

Don’t rely solely on survey results. Combine them with other assessment methods to create a more complete picture of leadership effectiveness.

Moving towards a culture of transparency and accountability

In adopting a more comprehensive and nuanced approach to leadership assessment, organisations can create a culture of transparency and accountability. Such an approach helps to identify and address toxic leadership, and fosters a positive work environment where employees feel valued and heard.

This can lead to improved employee morale, increased productivity, and enhanced organisational performance in the long run.

The research from Binghamton University's School of Management serves as a wake-up call for organisations to evaluate their leadership assessment measures more closely.

Acknowledging the limitations of traditional employee surveys and implementing more targeted and comprehensive assessment methods can help organisations take proactive steps to identifying and addressing toxic leadership and ultimately fostering a healthier and more productive workplace.

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Topics: Leadership, Employee Engagement, Culture

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