Toxic leaders in social change non-profits

Just because a non-profit organization is dedicated to changing the world for the better, don’t assume that its leadership is committed to creating a healthy, supportive workplace for the staff. That’s the underlying message of a terrific presentation by Vega Subramaniam, co-founder of Vega Mala Consulting, who presented on toxic leadership in the non-profit, social change sector at this year’s just concluded Work, Stress, and Health conference.

The biennial conference is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

Subramaniam and her business co-founder, Mala Nagarajan, are using interviews and surveys of workers in non-profit, social change organizations to study the presence and effects of toxic leadership, which in smaller groups tends to center on the executive director. They are looking specifically at leadership within organizations committed to achieving systemic social change within given spheres of influence, in contrast to non-profits in human services or other charitable realms.

“Literally copy and paste”

Subramaniam reported that they could “literally copy and paste” examples of toxic leadership as experienced by one worker to another. These included creating cultures of mistrust, micromanaging and holding “incessant meetings,” capricious behaviors, unfair blame for mistakes, coercive work demands, and engaging in misrepresentations to grant funders.

Workers found that sorting out and coping with these toxic environments became all consuming, with negative effects on their careers, health, and personal lives. It makes sense: Those who work for cause-driven non-profits are often drawn by the organization’s social mission. It’s a chance to make a difference, maybe even change the world, or at least a corner of it. Especially against the backdrop of this idealism, being bullied and otherwise mistreated in such jobs can be a devastating experience.

Charismatic leaders

When the presentation tagged the potential significance of charismatic leaders who are not good managers in creating toxic work environments, I wanted to shout “hallelujah!” in response. Cause-driven non-profits often fall blindly for charismatic types in designating their leaders, and the results can backfire badly.

A few years ago, I discussed a variation of this type of leader in a blog post on the “Let-Me-Impress-You Club,” those folks who “have learned how to wow people in a room with their personalities and accomplishments, but . . . haven’t quite figured out how to lead when the going gets tough and they are no longer cheered by admirers.” I added:

It also reflects a fundamental problem with how we select people for positions of influence and responsibility. Too often we make these choices on the basis of Let-Me-Impress-You credentials and qualities, while downplaying, if not ignoring, other important indicia of who can provide effective service and leadership.

Very promising project

In addition to watching the presentation, I had a chance to talk to Vega and Mala about their project. They’re on to something very important here. They also have the experience and wisdom to interpret their results wisely and use the emerging insights to educate others.

Non-profits are hardly immune from bad leadership, as I’ve written on numerous occasions here. In fact, I was flattered when Vega showed a slide adapting my blog post about workplace bullying in the non-profit sector to help explain toxic behaviors by social change leaders. She highlighted factors such as the nobility of an organizational mission trumping decent treatment of employees, a lack of managerial accountability in relation to the organization’s board of directors, and the ongoing squeeze of scant resources.

Effecting positive social change is no easy task, and it is even more difficult when organizations created to advance that change are nasty places to work. I hope that this project will help to fuel healthier work environments for those who want to make a difference.


Related posts

The non-profit sector: So vital, but not all gooey feel-good (2015)

Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector (2014)

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Conferences as Community Builders | Psychology Benefits Society

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