The “Trickle Down” Effect of Toxic Workplaces

Ray Williams
8 min readSep 16, 2021

Let me begin by saying that in my 35 years as a leadership trainer and executive coach, I have worked with some of the finest inspirational and productive leaders who exhibit humility, compassion and a dedication to service to others.

Then there are the others. Far too many of them.

In my book, Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Moral and Ethical Leaders, I describe in detail the damaging impact of toxic bosses on worker well-being and their organizations. Substantial recent research has documented that toxic behavior in organizations can spread like a virus.

According to research published in the journal Work Stress Aaron Schat and Michael R. Front report that many workers experience abusive supervisors and bullies at work, which they term workplace aggression or “WPA.” These employees are targets of ridicule, threats, or demeaning comments by their manager on a daily basis, which results in decreased satisfaction, productivity, and commitment to the job as well as the organization at large.

They concluded that “abusive manager behavior is positively related to abusive supervisor behavior which, in turn, is positively related to work group interpersonal deviance…. The results provide support for our trickle-down model in that abusive manager behavior was not only related to abusive supervisor behavior, but was also associated with employees’ behavior two hierarchical levels below the manager.”

Also, new research presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association finds that the negative effects of rude behavior don’t stop when the work day is done. In fact, women who experience incivility in the workplace are more likely to engage in stricter, more authoritarian parenting practices that can have a negative impact on their children.

“These findings reveal some previously undocumented ways that women, in particular, suffer as a result of workplace aggression,” says researcher Angela Dionisi, PhD, of Carleton University. “In uncovering how this mistreatment in the workplace interferes with positive mother-child interactions, this research also speaks to a previously unacknowledged group of indirect incivility victims, namely children.”

Manuela Priesemuth, a management professor at Villanova University, wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “While direct interactions with ‘bad bosses’ can be traumatic for employees, the problem often goes further than a single individual. Indeed, some of my own research has shown that abusive behavior, especially when displayed by leaders, can spread throughout the organization, creating entire climates of abuse. Because employees look to and learn from managers, they come to understand that this type of interpersonal mistreatment is acceptable behavior in the company. In essence, employees start to think that ‘this is how it’s done around here,’ and this belief manifests itself in a toxic environment that tolerates abusive acts. More so, studies have even shown that employees who experience abuse from a supervisor are also more inclined to “pass on” this type of treatment in a ripple effect.”

Priesemuth says toxic workplaces impair the personal lives of individuals. Employees report feeling emotionally drained, diminished well-being, and even increased work-family conflict at home.

In their study, Mary Bardes Mawritz and her colleagues at Drexel University, University of Michigan, and the University of Illinois, published a research paper in the journal Personnel Psychology, in which they argue: “we find that abusive manager is correlated to work group interpersonal deviance. In addition, hostile climate moderates the relationship between abusive supervisor behavior and work group interpersonal deviance such that the relationship is stronger when hostile climate is high. The results provide support for our trickle-down model in that abusive manager behavior was not only related to abusive supervisor behavior but was also associated with employees’ behavior at least two hierarchical levels below the manager.”

The researchers argue the trickle-down effect proposes that individuals are likely to model the aggressive behavior of those in positions of higher status, suggesting that aggressive behaviors can trickle-down from one hierarchical organizational level to the next.

Erica Mildner, at the University of British Columbia, described in her article in The Conversation described the problem of toxic workplaces. She reports that in Canada, the emphasis on workers’ right to a safe and healthy workplace in the wake of former governor general Julie Payette’s resignation provides a rare opportunity to expand the definition of workplace harassment and hold toxic bosses to account — just as serial sexual abusers have been outed and held responsible during the #MeToo movement.

In my article, “The Rise of Toxic Leaders and Toxic Workplaces,”, I describe in detail the fact that books, articles, seminars and speeches abound espousing the virtues of great leaders, effusive in their description of men and women who are selfless, humble, empathetic, compassionate, emotionally intelligent and altruistic. Hordes of consultants, university professors, researchers and coaches make their living espousing the need for choosing these kinds of leaders. The truth of the matter is that we are hypocrites, but often we choose toxic leaders who end up creating toxic workplaces..

We all too often hire and promote the psychopaths, the narcissists, the bullies and the autocrats dedicated to self-interest, and whose long-term impact has and can damage and even destroy organizations (and even countries).

Many people easily forgive these toxic leaders and the harm they cause because they measure their success solely in financial terms or because they bring charismatic entertainment value to the organization.

In my book, Eye of Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, I describe in detail the characteristics of toxic workplaces, which often have these characteristics:

  • All sticks and no carrots. Management focuses solely on what employees are doing wrong or correcting problems, and rarely give positive feedback for what is going right. Or mostly carrots for the best performers, sticks for the rest.
  • The creeping bureaucracy. There are too many levels of approval and management to get things done and a singular focus on micromanaging employees.
  • The gigantic bottom line. A singular focus on profits, beating the competition and cost cutting without consideration of other bottom lines.
  • Bullies rule the roost. Bullying of employees by management, or tolerated by management when it occurs among employees.
  • Losing the human touch. People are considered to be objects or expenses rather than assets, and there is little concern for their happiness and/or well-being.
  • High levels of stress, turnover, absenteeism and burnout. Instituting internal competition among employees enforced by a performance assessment system that focuses on individual performance rather than team performance.
  • Little or no concern for work-life balance, where a personal or family life must be sacrificed for the job. Overwork or workaholism, commonly evidenced by 50 hr.+ workweeks, little or no vacation time and 24/7 availability for work communication.
  • Little or no commitment to making contributions to the community, worthy causes or making the world a better place.

There has been a decline in civility in the workplace, including the growth of bullying. Christine Porath, Georgetown University business professor wrote a piece in The New York Times about the decline of civility in the workplace: “A quarter of those I surveyed in l998 reported that they were treated rudely at work at least once week…That figure rose to nearly half in 20005 , then to just over half in 2011.” The poll by Weber Shandwick, reported that 65% of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem that has worsened during the financial crisis and recession. What’s even more distressing is that nearly 50% of those surveyed said they were withdrawing from the basic tenants of democracy — government and politics — because of incivility and bullying.”

Theo Veldsman of the University of Johannesburg published a study in Huffington Post, on the growth and impact of toxic leadership on organizations. He contends that “there is a growing incidence of toxic leadership in organizations across the world.” Veldsman says that anecdotal and research evidence shows that one out of every five leaders is toxic, and he argues according to his research, that is closer to three out of every ten leaders. Veldsman describes toxic leadership as “ongoing, deliberate intentional actions by a leader to undermine the sense of dignity, self-worth and efficacy of an individual. This results in exploitative, destructive, devaluing and demeaning work experiences.” He goes on to say that a toxic organization is one that “erodes, disable and destroys the physiological, psychosocial and spiritual well being of the people who work in it in permanent and deliberate way.

INSEAD business school Professors Gianpiero Petriglieri and Jennifer Petriglieri, authors of “Can Business Schools Humanize Leadership?” in the journal Academy of Management Learning & Education, have coined the term “leadership industrial complex,” which they say promotes a view of leadership that is depersonalized and sanitized: “Over one decade of corporate scandals, financial meltdowns and growing inequality has consolidated a disconnect with business and political leaders, as it is in the protests in the streets and squares around the globe.” Leaders now are no longer seen as being role models or stewards of the common good, but rather as predatory plutocrats who profit disproportionately at the expense of the majority of the population.

G. Petriglieri and J. Petriglieri argue that we have experienced a “dehumanization of leadership in which leadership is reduced from a cultural enterprise to a strict intellectual or commercial one, and in which leadership “distances aspiring leaders from their followers and institutions, resulting in a disconnect their inner and outer worlds.”

Most toxic work cultures originate with poor management, whose bad habits can be contagious. “Destructive behaviours at the top trickle down,” says Manuela Priesemuth, an associate professor in the management and operations department at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, US, who has researched abusive managers and toxic workplaces. “If executives engage in toxic behaviour, people in the organisation assume this behaviour is accepted and they engage in it, too. Soon enough, a toxic climate is formed, where everybody thinks, ‘This is just how we act around here’.”

In a nestudy published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior on such “managerial trickle-down effects” in the workplace, Columbia Business School’s Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business Joel Brockner finds that people in mid-level managerial roles are especially likely to do unto those below them as has been done to them from above when those in the mid-level managerial roles experience less of a sense of power, defined as the perceived ability to control valuable resources. He specifically examines the overall impact of a manager’s informational fairness, defined as how well mid-level managers explain decisions to the supervisors below them, and how this affects how much supervisors reporting to the mid-level managers treat their own direct reports in a dignified and respectful manner.

We are in a leadership crisis when it comes to confidence in our political and business leaders. We say we want empowering, humble, and kind leaders — bolstered by research evidence — but we often choose authoritarian, controlling, narcissistic and toxic leaders.

We need to recognize that toxic workplaces are not just the product of a single toxic leader, but also can be the result of toxic leader behaviors spreading to other supervisors and workers like a virus in the organization.

To read more on this topic, read my new book, Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Moral and Ethical Leaders

Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others