Academic Minute Podcast

Bryan Acton, Binghamton University – Unveiling the Blind Spots in Leadership Evaluations

Toxic leadership can’t be allowed to fester at an organization. But how can we root out toxic leaders?

Bryan Acton, assistant professor at the school of management at Binghamton University, looks for a way to do so.

Dr. Bryan Acton is an Assistant Professor at the Binghamton University School of Management and a Fellow of the Bernard M. & Ruth R. Bass Center for Leadership Studies. He holds a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech and was a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at Durham University Business School (UK). He is primarily interested in studying how leadership emerges within collectives over time. He is also interested in refining the measurement techniques used to evaluate leadership, and leveraging advanced statistical methodologies to enhance our understanding of social systems. His research on improving measurement has been in collaboration with a much larger team of leadership scholars and supported by grants from the US Army Research Institute.

Unveiling the Blind Spots in Leadership Evaluations

Employees are all too familiar with standardized questionnaires regarding their supervisors. But what if they’re not asking the right questions?

Our research has found that organizations may be missing out on crucial information that could keep toxic leaders in positions of power. The simplicity of these questionnaires allow negative behavior to slip through the cracks.

We found that employees often rely on long-term memory to rank harmful leadership practices. They frequently answer with broad perceptions of how a manager performs their job, and critical leadership missteps may be overlooked if such negative encounters are rare.

Our research solicited feedback from 200 participants, whose occupations ranged from sales to engineering, to see how their memory impacted their perception of toxic versus ethical leadership. When asked about specific negative leadership scenarios, many participants cited something positive, such as saying their supervisor gives back to the community.

We observed that most participants didn’t dwell on specific negative incidents, meaning employees depend on generalized impressions of their leader to form their opinions. This generalized impression leads to unaccounted critical leadership missteps and can misrepresent the leader’s evaluation.

The key takeaway from our study is that analyzing individual leader behaviors and asking employees to answer more pointed questions in these surveys is more likely to allow for meaningful improvements in leadership. Implementing these changes will help bridge the gap between how people perceive a leader to be doing and how effective that leader actually is.

Our findings could help organizations make critical decisions about promotions and salary increases, affecting employee turnover and whether toxic leaders remain in their roles.

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