When Insecurity Shapes Leader Behavior

Published: February 22, 2023

There are two reasons behavior that undermines team and workplace culture gets tolerated. Most often, it’s because it has become normalized over time and woven into the fabric of day-to-day interactions. Sometimes, it’s because the actions that make the workplace cautious or unsafe are being executed by those in power where they can’t be challenged. It’s a form of bullying. Usually, these two sources of toxicity join so what is tolerated gets eventually sanctioned. It becomes okay to treat others poorly when it cascades down from above.

The cascading-down-from-above ecosystems are among the hardest to repair. Their vulnerability resides in delicate places. More importantly, those in power don’t have to take responsibility for the mess created below. In fact, they can victim-blame. What in the world was Pearl Harbor doing underneath that bomb in the first place?!

Here’s a rule of thumb: The bigger the bully, the greater the insecurity in their ego. If that ego happens to also be a high performer, the likelihood of organizational inurement rises. Yet high performing teams usually perform higher when a cancer is cured or removed.

Axios CEO, Jim VandeHei, addressed the consequence of insecure people in power in his 2/16/2023 article entitled The Toxicity of Deep Insecurity. If any of the behaviors listed below are normalized in your workplace, it might be time for a reboot.

  • Bitterness: Negativity is contagious and depletes the energy in the room.
  • Loneliness: Insecure people attract insecure people and repel confident people.
  • Meanness: Save for an occasional bad day, secure people don’t treat others badly.
  • Selfishness: When the ‘me’ is consistently more important that the ‘we,’ colleagues are worker bees not teammates.
  • Smallness: Confident people don’t belittle others to make themselves feel bigger.

A little insecurity – often in the form of humility – is a healthy trait. It keeps us grounded and committed to growth. Humble leaders earn the respect of their teams by listening, reflecting, and adapting to complex situations. They remain curious even when they are empowered to have all the answers.

Imagine the outcome if the super-talented, ego-driven bully shed the insatiable need to prove strength. Perhaps the superficial craving for reassurance would be replaced by a generous appreciation for the contributions of the team. Maybe colleagues would stop bracing when they see the Caller ID. That would certainly leave a different leadership legacy when all was said and done.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.