One third of a representative sample of leaders and followers may experience severe interpersonal problems at work, according to study.

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Lars Glasø on leadership

Mainstream leadership literature claims that individuals in leadership roles differ from followers by scoring higher on several positive characteristics such as intelligence, alertness, insight, responsibility, initiative, persistence, self-confidence and sociability.

However, this is peculiar as many employees state that their boss is a primary source of stress at work.

For example, organizational climate studies from the mid 1950s to 1994 show that 60 to 75 per cent of the employees in any organization report that the most stressful aspect of their job is their immediate superior.

Destructive behaviour

More recently, in a Norwegian study, as many as 60 per cent of the respondents claimed that their immediate superior showed some level of consistent destructive behavior. Yet, the respondents also described their leaders simultaneously to show positive behavior.

Hence, it is reasonable to believe that leaders are neither as effective nor as constructive as they are portrayed in the leadership literature. Furthermore, the descriptions of leaders seem in some regards contradictory and in need of further clarification.

Interpersonal competence

In the following study, sociability or interpersonal competence is singled out as a target dimension and employed in order to explore this issue further.

Leaders who are characterized by sociability are friendly, outgoing, courteous, tactful, and diplomatic. In fact, sociability has been shown to be among the most important prerequisites for good leadership. Such leaders are sensitive to other people’s needs and show concern for their well-being.

Thus, social leaders with high interpersonal competence create cooperative relationships with their followers. As argued above, there is reason to believe that such positive characteristics may not be as prevalent among leaders as traditional leadership research might lead us to believe.

On the contrary, both the frequency of destructive leadership documented above, and the content of leader development programs, emphasizing interpersonal skills, strongly indicates that many leaders lack adequate interpersonal competence and, thus, need both knowledge and training in order to manage and cope with interpersonal issues at work.

According to those scholars viewing leaders to be more socially competent than their followers, leaders may be expected to exhibit lower frequencies of interpersonal problems than their counterpart followers. However, the findings on the extent of leaders’ antisocial behavior mentioned above question such a view.

Study on Norwegian leaders and followers

In the present study we therefore investigated this issue by utilizing a self report instrument (Inventory of Interpersonal Problems – Circumplex (IIP-C) that systematically measures individuals’ self-perception of a broad range of interpersonal problems, employing a representative sample (2539) of Norwegian employees, including leaders as well as followers. Hence, a subsample of leaders with personnel responsibilities was compared to a subsample of non-leaders.

Furthermore, to examine the degree to which leaders and followers have elevated or even pathological levels of interpersonal problems, these subsamples were compared with a sample of patients attending psychiatric day care clinics.

Severe interpersonal problems

The present study showed that about 70 per cent of the leaders and followers portrayed interpersonal profiles similar to the norms in the population.

However, some thirty per cent of the leaders and the followers exhibited elevated profiles of interpersonal problems, on a level comparable to that of a sample with psychiatric patients, thus, indicating that severe problems may arise in social interactions between leaders with personnel responsibilities and their subordinates.

It was demonstrated that one third of a representative sample of the Norwegian work force may experience severe interpersonal problems at work resembling patients who attend psychotherapeutic day hospitals for their corresponding problems.

Considering the high numbers of both leaders and followers who actually report such problems, this is an alarming result which indicates that many leaders are prone to get into trouble with peers, subordinates and superiors.

The fact that a high number of leaders reported a problem profile may raise questions regarding the adequacy of the numerous leader development programs regularly run in most Western countries.

Our findings may also question the recruitment processes for leaders, since we would expect fewer problem leaders than problem followers to prevail after careful leader selection. Hence, these problems should be considered and dealt with in an even more professional manner in both recruitment and selection processes, as well as in training programs.


Glasø, L., Einarsen, S, Matthiesen, S., & Skogstad, A. (2010). The dark side of leadership: A representative study of interpersonal problems among leaders. Scandinavian Journal of Organizational Psychology, 2(2), 3-14.

This article is published in BI Leadership Magazine 2012/2013, a knowledge magazine from the Department of Leadership and Organizational Behavour at BI Norwegian Business School.


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