Hostility: The killer personality trait and ultimate derailer

The #1 personality trait associated with decreased results and team morale is Hostility.

In our dataset of over 250,000 raters, statistically-speaking, hostility is the most toxic trait in a leadership profile. While you might think hostile aggressive behaviours are relatively rare in leaders, research globally indicates otherwise. Hostility is not only very well represented in leadership positions, it runs rampant.

A large body of literature exists on leaders described as aggressive, abusive, brutal, bullying, … a list of synonyms that goes on and on. My web search of ‘brutal boss’ yielded 44mn hits. Because leaders set the behavioural norms for a culture, their behaviours have a contagious quality. Bullying begets bullying, down the line. Although most organisations say treating others with respect and consideration is a core value, workplace abuse is common throughout the world.

Harvey Hornstein, Columbia University psychology professor, surveyed 1,000 people: 90 per cent reported they had worked for a ‘brutal boss’ in their career who publicly humiliated them or blamed them for his own failures. Hornstein says more than 20 per cent of employees currently report to a brutal boss.

David Campbell, of the Center for Creative Leadership, says, “We’ve had managers come to our centre who actually defined leadership as the ability to inflict pain.”

In a 2008 Zogby survey, 37 per cent of Americans say they are bullied by others, yet only 0.05 per cent self-report behaving like a bully. This suggests many bullies are oblivious – or claim to be obvious - to their impact on others.

Studies by Keashly, Neuman and Jagatic found that 25 per cent to 35 per cent of US employees are bullied, abused and mistreated at work – with roughly equal injustice for men and women.

75 per cent of medical errors result from breakdowns in leadership, teamwork and communications. A 2003 study with 461 nurses in Orthopedic Nursing showed 91 per cent had been verbally abused in the past month – physicians the most common abusers.

The psychology of hostility

Hostile individuals are intolerant of people or situations that don’t match their internal wants and expectations. When things do not ‘go their way’, they yell at others, criticising and belittling them. They lead through fear and intimidation; they are big on raising their voice to blame and short on humility, empathy and listening. When disagreed with, they easily feel offended and antagonised, and justified to react to ‘provocations’ by getting more aggressive. Rather than finding ways to reduce conflict, people with a hostile personality escalate the confrontation; they go on the offensive and there are costs.


Team productivity: Research shows that hostile behaviours impact the productivity of the target and observers of the hostility, employees’ discretionary efforts and stress of team members. Organisations with bullies have higher turnover rates, because 25 per cent of those bullied and 20 per cent of witnesses leave (five per cent is national turnover average)

Turnover: Sutton calculated the annual cost to a Silicon Valley firm for one abusive salesperson (in additional HR, operational, legal and replacement costs at US$160,000 (2006) – not including costs from less motivated employees working under abuse. If abused workers litigate, costs go up; replacement employees are expensive; if the abusive behaviour continues, it’s a recurring cost.

Quality of life: Beyond the negative impact on team members and organisation, there is an exorbitant cost to the quality of life for chronically hostile individuals, in their personal life and for their family.

Length of life: Although intensity, drive, urgency and hostility frequently co-occur in the ‘Type A personality’, only hostility is linked to mortality.

Hostile executives may quickly dismiss workplace costs associated with their behaviour, but mortality can get their attention – or their realisation that they are role modeling very counterproductive behaviours for their children. Given the costs and unrealised potential upside in their personal and professional relationships, leaders with the hostility habit are strongly encouraged to get coaching and/or psychotherapy. Learning to manage internal feelings of irritability and externalised hostile behaviours is possible, but depends on whether a leader takes accountability for their behaviour.

Here are thoughts and questions to ponder around being accountable for your behaviour:

Aggressive, hostile leaders resist, debate, and argue that socially-appropriate, teamwork-oriented behaviours are not the authentic me – “That’s not who I am.” Authenticity, however, does not equate to effective professional behaviours – which leaders are handsomely paid to demonstrate. Did a leader conveniently overlook this fact? I often inquire about this.

Leaders routinely hold others accountable for behaviours and results that don’t come naturally or express their authentic self! How can a leader expect others to stretch behaviourally at work, if unwilling to apply the same rules to their own behaviours? I find this often a rich area for inquiry.

Marshall Goldsmith describes this lack of accountability as an ‘excessive need to be me’ – where leaders use their power to reframe faults as virtues because they are who they are.” Steve Jobs did by conflating his dysfunctional, hostile, domineering behaviours with his more effective gritty behaviours that actually drove his productivity.

Team members carefully monitor and interpret what leaders say and do. When I hear a leader say “people are just too sensitive . . . they know I don’t mean comments made in the heat of the moment,” I ask, “Is it possible that others in fact are not too sensitive, but you are insensitive?”



Ron Warren

Ron Warren, PH.D. is the developer of the LMAP360 Assessment, used by top education institutions and corporations worldwide, and author of PERSONALITY AT WORK: The Drivers And Derailers Of Leadership. For more information please visit

Hostility: The killer personality trait and ultimate derailer
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