Porträtt av Maria Fors Brandebo

Maria Fors Brandebo is Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in leadership at the Swedish Defence University.

Passive-destructive leaders are the worst

Maria Fors Brandebo's research has unexpectedly shown that it is the passive destructive leadership behaviors that often have the greatest negative impact.
"They not only exacerbate workplace bullying but are one of the main reasons why it occurs in the first place."

How are we affected by destructive leadership and how can we handle it? These are the core questions in Maria Fors Brandebo's research where she sets out to find what the consequences of destructive leadership are and how the organization affects leadership.

Maria Brandebo is a senior lecturer in leadership and has researched leadership in various forms since she joined the Swedish Defence University almost 20 years ago.

"The exciting thing about leadership is that almost everyone has some experience of it, either at work or from outside organizations. We are impacted by leaders who don't function in their roles, which makes this research incredibly relevant. How can we handle destructive leadership behaviors?", she asks.

Passive destructive leadership behaviours have a major negative impact

Maria Fors Brandebo points out that most employees and managers can demonstrate destructive tendencies in certain situations, such as under stress.

"When employees do not know their roles or what to prioritize, conflicts and informal leadership often emerge. This has a negative impact on teamwork and leads to stress and frustration."

Self-awareness, communication, and interpersonal skills

Maria Fors Brandebo finds motivation in identifying how leaders and employees understand each other better. It is about breaking negative patterns and understanding the processes that affect leadership.

"The more we talk about it, the more likely we are to ask for help to work on these aspects. If we can put the behaviour into words, it is easier to resolve our differences and move forward. For example, employees need to have the skill to give feedback in a constructive way, and leaders must listen to the criticism and understand why employees react the way they do."

As a leader, you may think you are doing everything right, but somehow the result is still negative.

"If that happens, it is important for leaders not to assume a negative attitude towards employees and engage in destructive leadership, but instead, seek to understand how the employee feels and accept and respond to the criticism in a constructive manner."

Difficult to influence destructive behaviour

Admittedly, it is difficult for employees to affect destructive behaviour from the leadership. Through more research into the area, Maria Fors Brandebo hopes to identify more solutions on how employees can act when their leader is not willing to change.

"I truly believe that most people can change. It comes down to self-awareness and the ability to listen to and learn from criticism and feedback", she says.

Consequences of leadership

When she started her career as a research assistant in 2005, she worked on a project that studied trust in leaders in a military context.

"This was a rather unexplored area. The research included what makes us trust a leader and what the consequences of leadership are."

Working with Gerry Larsson, now senior professor of leadership at the Swedish Defence University, and others, she was a pioneer in the research area of destructive leadership behaviour.

"Commissioned by the Swedish Armed Forces, one of the things we studied was what factors contributed to conscripts' motivation to continue in the Armed Forces. We saw that positive leadership had an impact on the desire to stay in the organization. But negative leadership had a much greater impact and made conscripts want to leave", she says.

Thus, negative or destructive leadership behaviours have a much deeper impact on people than good leadership does.

"When we saw the results, we realized that there was a need to look deeper into the negative leadership behaviours and not only focus on the good and constructive aspects."

Identifying destructive leadership behaviours

This led to broader studies on leadership, and they developed an assessment tool - Destrudo L - which is used to measure different types of destructive leadership. The tool asks a number of questions to identify actively destructive behaviors: Is the leader arrogant and unfair? Punitive with excessive demands? Egocentric and false? In addition, passive destructive behaviours are measured: Is the manager cowardly? Are they insecure or unclear?

"The tool can be used by employees to rate their leaders, but it can also be used for self-assessment", says Maria Fors Brandebo.

Current research on the consequences of destructive leadership

Maria Fors Brandebo is currently working on a three-year research project studying the consequences of destructive leadership.

"Among other things, we have interviewed senior managers about what happens when subordinate managers act destructively and how they handle such situations. The strategies that managers and employees use often lead to either escalation of the situation or no change."

Moreover, the study identifies organizational limitations that affect leadership. These include, for example, a 'silence culture' that prevents people from questioning their manager.

"This seems to be common in hierarchical organizations such as the Swedish Armed Forces, the Police Authority, and the Fire and Rescue Service and may limit employees' choices and strategies. It may be related to the fact that leaders in these organizations have a strong impact on employees' careers and promotions. If you find yourself in conflict with a leader, there is a fear that the leader will damage your reputation and your opportunities for advancement."

Maria Fors Brandebo hopes that the study can identify which strategies and functions in an organization that can be used to counteract destructive managerial behaviour.

Moral integrity and selection processes

In another current project, Brandebo is working with researchers in Canada to develop a tool that can identify individuals with high moral integrity.

"Moral integrity, having a strong inner compass regarding what is right and wrong, and standing up for societal values, is a valuable characteristic that is important to identify, for example in the selection of candidates for leadership positions in the Armed Forces."

In addition, she is working on evaluating the selection processes for the Officer Program at the Swedish Defence University and the Leadership Selection Group which is the Swedish Armed Forces' selection process for selecting suitable individuals to be offered senior positions in the Armed Forces.

"We look at whether the selection process is valid and accurate, i.e., whether the right people are selected."

The Leadership Selection Group uses a tool that measures destructive leadership developed by her research team.

Destructive leadership behaviors both in the Armed Forces and in civilian workplaces

One of the challenges in research on leadership behaviour is getting individuals to participate in interviews and surveys.

"It can be a sensitive topic, raising questions about destructive leadership in certain workplaces, which limits our ability to collect data. It is usually easy to get individuals to agree to interviews, but measuring destructive leadership behaviours in an entire unit, for example, is more difficult. It is important to have contact persons who see how the unit can benefit from this knowledge and are not afraid of potentially negative outcomes."

Maria Fors Brandebo mainly researches leadership in the Swedish Armed Forces but emphasizes that the same structures and processes exist in civilian workplaces.

"Knowledge of how we function in different relationships and how we affect each other can be applied in many contexts, both at work and at home."

Josefin Svensson

In brief

Title: Senior Lecturer in leadership.

At the Swedish Defence University since: 2005.

Current work: A book on resistance at work will soon be published and I have written one of the chapters.

On my free time:I am engaged in dog sports. We have a two-year-old golden retriever boy with whom I compete in obedience, working track, and special search.

Most recent book I read:A book in the Värmland series by Ninni Schulman set in Hagfors.

Secret talent: I am actually really good at rhymes.

Happily discussing: Leadership, dog training, and parenting.

My driving forces as a researcher: I want to make employees and managers understand each other better and find ways to handle bad leadership, and what advice can be beneficial to organizations, leaders, and employees in this situation.

Related material

Watch Maria Fors Brandebo's lecture on destructive leadership (in Swedish).

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