Why People Follow Toxic Leaders

Jake Wilder
Dec 15, 2020 · 6 min read

And the Best Way to Avoid Falling into this Trap

More than half of House Republicans — 106 of them — urged the Supreme Court to overthrow the election, effectively trying to disenfranchise millions of voters for the heinous crime of not voting Republican. Thankfully, the Supreme Court recognized the Texas lawsuit for the baseless trash that it was and the Electoral College followed suit with endorsing the will of the American people. Score one for democracy. As well as intelligence and morality.

But 106 House Republicans, along with 18 Republican Attorneys General, will forever be on the record as supporting a baseless lawsuit that attempted to obstruct the will of the people. And contrary to all logic, it doesn’t seem to be over. Apparently a number of Republicans are planning to sow further division by challenging the outcome in early January.

It’s as though they have lifetime tickets to the wrong side of history.

But this is the price of following a toxic leader. Eventually, followers always need to choose between behaviors that are unethical and immoral or risk becoming a target of the very leader they’ve supported.

Toxic leaders don’t see their supporters as people. They see them as tools. And as tools, they have little compunction for casting them aside once they’re no longer useful.

Everyone is expendable. Former Attorney General William Barr and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp both proved themselves to be ardent Trump supporters. They put their own reputations — and American lives — on the line in an effort to further Trump’s agendas. Yet the moment they stopped following his dictates, the moment they stopped being useful, he turned on them as he has many others.

After all, there’s no reason to keep a tool once it’s stopped being useful.

This progression seems inevitable. Yet people continue to pile on the bandwagon even as it catches fire.

Part of the reason, at least, lies in a six-decade-old study.

When Stanley Milgram ran his famous experiments in 1961, he wanted to measure the influence of authority on people’s behaviors. Under the guise of using electrical shocks to improve learning, he asked one group to learn word associations and recall them when asked. The other group was charged (haha, get it?) with giving the learner an electrical shock when they gave a wrong answer.

The results weren’t encouraging for humanity. Despite screams of pain, pleading for mercy, and people passing unconscious, a full 65% of people continued to apply lethal electrical shocks through the applied lethal electrical shocks to the final 450-volt charge.

Of course, no one actually died. There were no electrical shocks. It was all a setup to see if people would submit to an authority figure, even if they knew their actions would be harmful.

While nearly all participants were reluctant to continue when the pain they were causing became obvious, the majority did so at the urging of the researcher. Milgram found that when an authority figure directed people, they were remarkably receptive to do things they otherwise would not, including actions that could harm others.

Milgram initially wanted to run the experiment in Germany, hoping to explain why German citizens went along with the Holocaust. However, after seeing the test results here in the US, he decided there was no reason to go to Germany after all. Apparently, submission to authority figures is a relatively universal trait.

These results have been publicized and cited many times over. But a critical aspect of the test is often lost. And it’s this detail which explains how people find themselves in these situations to begin with.

If I asked you to flip a switch and send 450 volts into someone strapped to a chair, you’d likely offer some colorful language telling me exactly what I can go do with that switch. But if I asked you to flip a switch and send 15 volts into someone, you might be more likely to comply.

Fifteen volts is minor, most people would barely feel it. If it’s in your interest to take this step, it’s easy to rationalize it away. There’s no real harm in just 15 volts. Why not?

Milgram recognized this and set his experiment up accordingly. He didn’t start with 450 volts. If he did, no one would know his name. He started with 15 volts and then increased the magnitude in 15-volt increments. Participants could rationalize that such a small increase wouldn’t be harmful. As Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert describes in Stumbling On Happiness,

“The human brain is not particularly sensitive to the absolute magnitude of stimulation, but it is extraordinarily sensitive to differences and changes — that is, to the relative magnitude of stimulation.”

We notice relative changes. We don’t pay attention to absolute magnitudes.

Toxic leaders build their supporters in the same way. They don’t start out asking them to support an Anti-American coup and overthrow the world’s longest standing democracy. They start by encouraging people to tacitly align through nonresistance. Just look the other way to these questionable practices. They know that once people begin to rationalize these actions, they’ll rationalize more later.

From Jeff Skilling at Enron to Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos, toxic leaders don’t start off by asking people to directly clash with their values. They create situations and give them a role to play. They put people in environments that incentivize following the group and then let them rationalize their behaviors in small, incremental steps.

Just as Milgram’s participants could rationalize away each 15-volt increase, followers find ways to rationalize away their own change in behaviors. Before long, they find themselves doing things that were once abhorrent to them. And looking back, it’s difficult to see how they fell into this trap.

It all hinges on that first 15 volts. In Milgram’s study, this was the differentiator. If someone took that step, each subsequent shock became less of a relative change. And it was that much easier to rationalize.

With toxic leaders, it’s the same principle. The time to stand up in defiance is in the beginning. It’s when you’re asked to be tolerant of intolerance. It’s when you see something that doesn’t seem right, but fear keeps you from speaking out. It’s when your gut gives you that unpleasant feeling that you’re drifting away from your core values and starting down a wrong path.

Once those rationalizations begin, you begin to align to the person doing that behavior. It’s now normalized. And stopping becomes much more difficult.

“Assholes tend to stick together, and once stuck are not easily separated,” Professor Robert Sutton wrote in his book, The No Asshole Rule. Sutton offers two main tests to identify a toxic leader:

“Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the ‘target’ feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, dos the target feel worse about him or herself?

Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?”

In contrast, good leaders seek to unite people as opposed to dividing them. They don’t talk in terms of us versus them. They focus on how we can all move forward together.

Good leaders are results-oriented, but they recognize the need for a broader view of the consequences. They understand that short-term victories at the expense of people’s well-being is not a victory.

Good leaders treat their followers as partners, not as tools. They value diverse opinions and suggestions. They listen to their concerns. And they genuinely want to achieve the best solution — even if it isn’t their own.

Most importantly, good leaders leave their team, company, or country better off than when they began. At the end of the day, they make decisions that enrich the lives of those they represent as opposed to their own.

Be wary of the people you choose to follow. Once you take that first step, every subsequent one becomes a little easier.

No one wakes up one day and decides to abandon their values. It’s a slow, incremental process. We chip away at our will one rationalization at a time.

Recognize the danger that comes with that first 15 volts. The best time to stand up and resist is before you begin. The second best time is now.

Before you have your own lifetime ticket to the wrong side of history.

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