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Paradoxical Leadership + Toxic Leaders = Paratoxical Leadership

February 8, 2022 1910
Sugar-cube figure on sugar cube stairs about to jump into steaming coffee

Christian Julmi outlines a situation just about anyone who’s had a boss can relate to — you’re given mutually exclusive directions and told you’re responsible for making sure they are carried out. In “Crazy, stupid, disobedience: The dark side of paradoxical leadership,” published in the journal Leadership, Julmi offers some suggestions on how to escape this toxic paradox.

In organizations, paradoxes are not only an expression of growing dynamism and complexity. Leaders can also generate them intentionally by means of double-bind rhetoric in order to exercise power. In double-bind situations, followers are trapped in a paradox: they have no possibility of doing what is right, but can always be made responsible by their leaders for wrong decisions. To create awareness of this dark side of paradoxical leadership, the article builds and elaborates a theoretical typology of double binds in organizations and discusses it in terms of the introduced concept of paratoxical leadership. The article further explains how paratoxical leadership leads to dysfunctional outcomes for the individual and the organization and discusses ways to successfully prevent and resolve instances of paratoxical leadership. In this way, the article shows how leadership power, or more precisely, the abuse of leadership power, in organizations can be explained from a paradox perspective.

What motivated you to pursue this research?

In organizations, a leadership relationship is usually an asymmetric power relationship between the leader and the employee. This is not negative per se. However, bad leaders abuse their power to achieve personal goals at the expense of their followers’ success and health. One particularly effective means to subjugate followers is to give them two mutually exclusive demands for action. No matter what the followers do, they violate at least one of the two demands: Damned if you do, and doomed if you don’t! The leaders, on the other hand, are always off the hook because they also prevent any possibility of thematizing the paradox on a meta-plane. Research to date lacks a systematic approach to this dark side of paradoxical leadership. We refer to this dark side as ‘paratoxical’ (paradoxical + toxic) leadership to distinguish it from the concept of paradoxical leadership—and to emphasize the toxicity of related practices.

Were there any specific external events—political, social, or economic—that influenced your decision to pursue this research?

In fact, I had several conversations that made me wonder because the experiences described seemed to follow a pattern. People told me about reaching professional dead ends from which they could no longer get out. No matter what they did, it only made the situation worse. In some cases, it wasn’t even clear how they got into this situation. I asked myself: How can it be that so many people are in a situation feeling trapped and powerless? Through further questioning, it became clear to me that this problem often had its origins in contradictory expectations on the part of leaders. In some cases, these paradoxes were not even apparent to those affected at first. But as subtle as they may have been, these paradoxes obviously had fatal consequences. With my research, I wanted to identify the mechanisms behind such constellations and raise awareness of a problem that has rarely been addressed in leadership research: how toxic leaders intentionally create paradoxes to subjugate their followers.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

The article is based on double bind theory, which researchers have occasionally applied in management and organizational research for several decades now. In general, double bind theory is important for exploring the dark side of organizational paradoxes, as Marco Berti and Ace Volkmann Simpson demonstrate in their seminal article that recently appeared in Academy of Management Review.  However, the consideration of the relationship between the leader as perpetrator and the follower as victim has been largely neglected in research so far. I want to change this, because I assume that paradoxical communication is a popular form of rhetoric in practice to maintain a leader’s power at the expense of followers. In practice, such rhetoric is often complex and only reveals its fatal effects over time. I would therefore encourage researchers to use case studies to unravel this complexity. I am convinced that cult leaders, for example, often build and maintain their power through double bind rhetoric. By the way, Donald Trump, as the article illustrates, has also used this rhetoric with his speech immediately before the violent riot inside the US Capitol.

Christian Julmi is on the academic council and habilitation candidate (post-doc) at the chair for business administration, in particular organization and planning at the FernUniversität in Hagen.

View all posts by Christian Julmi

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