Toxic Leadership & Morale: A Data-Backed Analysis

We see it all the time.

The power-tripping officer or First Sergeant who behaves by the aphorism: “Do as I say, not as I do”.

The overbearing corporate executive splenetically screeching at his team for lack of productivity while showing up an hour late and leaving two hours early every day.

The a-list celebrity who condones and creates intensely toxic working environments.

Examples of toxic leadership range far and deep—no matter the professional sector. So what exactly lays at the fundamental crux of this issue? Why is it that most of us, with plentiful anecdotal evidence, see such toxic environments and leaders in both the military and corporate worlds?

I submit that the answer tethers around morale.

Dictionary.com defines morale as:

emotional or mental condition with respect to cheerfulness, confidence, zeal, etc., especially in the face of opposition, hardship, etc.

Let’s dive into the US military world.

THE DATA: AMERICAN MILITARY MORALE

In April 2015, USA Today published:

403,564 soldiers, or 52%, scored badly in the area of optimism, agreeing with statements such as: “I rarely count on good things happening to me.”

This report additionally shows that 300,000 soldiers, or roughly 40% of the army, do not trust their immediate supervisors or fellow soldiers in their unit. 40% also report that they do not feel respected or valued. A measly 32% feel “good” about said bosses and peers.

For reference, Americans trust M&Ms and Cheerios more than soldiers trust their bosses and peers. Hell, Americans trust the omniscient & data-spying Google more than soldiers trust their bosses and peers.

M&Ms… mmm, chocolatey. Too bad the average American trusts these tasty treats more than the average soldier does their peer or immediate supervisor.

Furthermore, USA Today states that 48% of soldiers in 2015 rated “little” satisfaction or commitment to their jobs. That’s around a staggering 360,000 individuals. Of the remaining 390,000 soldiers—where on the spectrum from “little” to “very high” satisfaction and commitment spectrum could we, given the readership of this blog, presume they skew?

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America helps us out with the answer to this question.

In 2019, the IAVA conducted a survey showing that 42% of males and 49% of females had reported “suicide ideation since joining the military”. Of note, only 9% of the surveyees reported “yes” when asked if they had had “suicidal ideation before joining the military”.

The one causal relation between these two correlates? Military service.

Intuitively almost all of us know that morale is interwoven with mental and emotional health. If one’s mental and emotional health is in the gutter, where do we believe one’s morale to be? Conversely, if one’s morale is in the gutter, where do we believe their mental and emotional health to be?

 Quite literally often-times with respect to the US military.

In 2014, only 31% reported that they had suicidal ideations since joining the military. In 2019, that percentage rose 12 points.

There are a plethora of other primary sources buttressed by quantitative evidence pointing to this notion of low military morale. For example, this 2018 Blue Star Families identifies:

the lack of ‘community connectedness and a sense of belonging’ as key factors negatively affecting military families. 48% of respondents reported not feeling a sense of belonging to their civilian community, and 43% felt the same about their military community.

This observation, that low morale exists not only for military members but also for military families, can be all but concluded. Given our aforementioned definition, low morale equates to low levels of “cheerfulness, confidence, [and] zeal”—which we see leads to the cynical headspace that the majority of the military clearly deal with on a day-to-day basis.

WHY GIVE A CRAP ABOUT MORALE?

Bottom line up front: not only does low morale cause higher suicide rates but it empirically causes exponentially higher levels of professional disengagement and astronomically lower rates of productivity.

A 2013 Gallup study states the following about the non-military US economy:

Of the 70% of American workers who are not reaching their full potential, 52% are not engaged, and another 18% are actively disengaged. These employees are emotionally disconnected from their companies and may actually be working against their employers’ interests […] Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity per year.

From a purely economically utilitarian perspective then, no matter civilian or military-side, morale matters with respect to professional productivity. Those who care about professional productivity or profits must care about individual morale.

With respect to how closely tied morale and professional productivity are, let’s try an anecdotal thought experiment: if you don’t like your immediate supervisor, your co-workers, or your professional environment… how much easier is it to leave if you’re a civilian juxtaposed to if you’re a member of the military? Clearly, the former.

Why does this ease of leaving one’s professional environment or career matter?

Because toxicity in a professional environment where it’s geometrically more difficult to leave due to unfavorable career consequences has more significance on morale than toxicity in a career where it’s much easier to leave.

Don’t like working at McKinsey? Put in your two weeks and work for Accenture.

Don’t like working at Joe Blow’s auto shop? Put in your two weeks and work for Naruto’s auto shop three blocks over.

Don’t like working for your NCOs as a PFC? Don’t like working for your CO? Don’t like working for your SNCOs as an NCO? Put in your two weeks and… um… wait a second…

And that’s the difference.

A toxic leader, or environment, in the first two examples is much easier to escape or replace than the third example—thus, this third leader retains exponentially more influence in his or her morale-impacting decisions—whether for good or naught.

Moreover, studies abound demonstrate that toxic leadership negatively impacts morale which in turn, radically decreases productivity. A 2019 study from IntechOpen states about the American non-military economy:

Statistical figure held toxic leadership responsible for 48% decrease in work effort and 38% in work quality. Another survey in 2017 by Life Meets Work consulting revealed some scary number as large as 73% turnover due to a toxic leader. It is reaffirmed time and again through various researches that the harmful after effects of toxicity may or may not seem prominent in short time but widens the dangerous ditch gradually over a period of time, claiming the very foundation of the organization.

A WORD ON MILITARY TOXIC LEADERSHIP

A lot of the time most military leaders do not set out to create toxic working environments. Similarly to how most married couples begin with puppy-eyed love at the onset of their marriage do not foresee divorcing each other, despite it statistically being more likely than not, most military leaders do not begin their careers to create toxic working environments.

The military leaders who don’t give a shit about morale, or don’t truly believe in its existence or its practical manifestations, are the same ones who create the most toxic environments. Ironic that the ones who need to listen to their subordinates the most are the ones least likely to do so.

I like to think of it like this: if you go to a stand-up special and the comedian makes jokes about bad cops and you get triggered, cause a scene, and drunkenly burst out the door—guess what?

 You’re probably the point.

Similarly, if your subordinates habitually submit EO and/or SHARP complaints about you and you get triggered or summarily dismiss said EO and/or SHARP complaints guess what?

You’re probably the point.

This past week @terminalCWO posted some rather disheartening writing from a female USMC SNCO:

Senior leaders in the Battalion are out of touch. They do not understand nor attempt to sympathize with the difficulties faced by female Marines.

[…]

There is no lactation room set up in this Battalion, and we have several Marines who are pregnant or nursing. One of them chooses to go to her home on base to pump, but that shouldn’t be a choice that they have to make.

There’s no backup, no buy in, no top cover for us when we try to assert ourselves and make things happen. There are systemic problems and attitudes pervading the leadership means and methods of many people here. For example: The lone female SNCO (me) is expected by other SNCOs to be the only person responsible for correcting and policing female Marines. I can’t think of anything more ludicrous than the notion of a SNCO being unable to lead one of their Marines due to their gender.

Females are talked over and their opinions discounted, in meetings, in conversations, both blatant and implied, every day. It is exhausting.

Twice in the past week, my voice has been mocked and my valid concerns made fun of by senior enlisted personnel. It seems to me that for some reason they hear my voice as their nagging wife or annoying girlfriend, and respond to me as such.

I was giving important direction to a group of SNCOs and was loudly interrupted by 1stSgt Fuller. When I asked them to please pay attention to what I was saying, they merely started talking again, louder, and when I stopped completely (utterly frustrated) they just laughed.  […]  1stSgt [Fuller] loudly corrected me in a high-pitched mocking voice, in front of 5 of my peers, using the same words I used earlier: “Pay attention to meeeee… this is importanttt.”

I wanted to remind him that I am NOT his nagging annoying wife and not to treat me that way, but I didn’t because I wanted to remove myself from the room before I lost my temper completely.

[…]

Honestly, I’m just so fed up and tired of thinking and talking about it.

That’s why I wrote this, so that the thoughts would stop circling in my head. I think about it when I’m driving home (to the moon, I guess), when I wash dishes, when I walk the dog, any spare moment I think about how I wish I was back at my old command where I was respected and valued as an integral part of the team. Here, I am just some annoying chick that causes trouble.

I wonder if this SNCO will re-enlist.

I wonder if this SNCO has been treated fairly, rightly—if she’s been treated justly.

I wonder if she’ll recommend her subordinate Marines stay in.

I wonder the number of undocumented voices, who’ve had similar experiences to this SNCO, there are within the Corps and the wider military.

I wonder where her morale is at.

A different story than above. From @terminalCWO’s story 8/27/20. Wonder how strong this soldier’s morale is…

THE PATH FORWARD

So… what gives?

Study after study and survey after survey demonstrate that morale matters—and that it matters in multifaceted, impactful ways.

Strengthen morale as a leader, strengthen the foundation of a professional environment of team’s productivity.

Strengthen morale as a leader, strengthen your team’s collective mental, physical, and emotional health.

So why is it, more often than not, we see such low morale in all professional corners of American society, most especially the military, if morale is so damned objectively important?

The answer shares its slimy tentacle roots with the meta-reasons behind a number of historical conflicts’ abject losses.

 The reason why Athens lost the Greek civil war to Sparta in 404 B.C.

 The reason why the French lost against the North Vietnamese in 1945 at Điện Biên Phủ.

 The reason why America undeniably failed the war in Afghanistan.

Hubris.

 As defined by Oxford Languages:

(in Greek tragedy) excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis.

Hubristic leaders are those who exhibit traits of narcissism (by DSM-V standards) to the point where they cannot see their own failures—they cannot see their own shortcomings.

Conversely, hubristic leaders chalk up morale as this vague thing with murky thresholds—something conjured up magically in their peers’ or subordinates’ imaginations.

So what’s the path forward? How can we—as fathers or mothers, as military or civilian leaders, as older brothers or sisters—raise the morale of those working for us and alongside us?

I turn to the Nobel-prize winning, Gulag-surviving historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for a concise, yet introspectively impactful answer to this human question:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

It’s up to us, as individuals, to be introspective, empathetic, and actionable leaders among environments with toxic leadership.

Because if not us, then who?

We’d really appreciate hearing your stories and feedback. Share some of your morale stories: best leaders? Worst leaders? Great working environments? Not-so-great-working environments?

The author can be found at his Instagram handle @rooftopnamja. Equipped with a master’s degree focusing on history, education, and psychology from Boston College and experience co-owning multiple profitable businesses, @rooftopnamja hopes to effect positive change through mental model shifts towards empathy for each other, corroborated by empirical evidence, in the American zeitgeist.

5 thoughts on “Toxic Leadership & Morale: A Data-Backed Analysis”

  1. Thank you for an excellent article. We have all had toxic leaders…the military deserves better and admitting the issue is the first step.

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