4 reasons people still follow toxic bosses, psychologist says: 'We're keeping them in power'

A male manager has a conflict with a female worker, while both standing in a warehouse.
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If toxic bosses are so terrible, why do people still follow them?

It has a lot to do with the way your mind works, says Ronald Riggio, a professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

Riggio has spent almost three decades researching and teaching the topic, while serving as a consultant to dozens of organizations. He says many bad bosses are unfit to lead because they are often narcissistic, don't genuinely care for their employees and would do anything to get the best results — even at the expense of others or basic morals.

Yet many of those managers have admirers and hold positions of power, from the business realm to politics, Riggio says. Take world leaders as an example: 57 countries are currently led by dictators who Riggio describes as unethical, unstable or incompetent.

People can't always know they'll have a toxic boss when interviewing for jobs, but once they're in the door, they can stay devoted to those bad managers for months or even years — largely because either they have the wrong idea about what good leadership looks like or because they're trying to reap personal benefits from the relationship, Riggio says.

"It's often our own human tendencies; we're keeping them in power," Riggio tells CNBC Make It.

Here are Riggio's top four specific reasons why people follow bad leaders: 

1. People confuse arrogance and narcissism for strength

Strength and confidence can be important leadership qualities. But people sometimes confuse arrogance and narcissism for strength, Riggio says.

A University of Amsterdam study in 2011 randomly assigned a leader to different groups of participants, had each team complete a group task and asked each team to rate their leader afterward. Participants rated the most narcissistic leaders as the most effective, even if those leaders actually inhibited communication and harmed their group's performance.

A bad boss' narcissism convinces them that they're always right, so they reject help from others and don't learn from their mistakes, Riggio says. "We're drawn to these people who appear competent — like they can take charge and handle a leadership role," he explains. "But they can be narcissists, and things can get out of hand."

2. People fall into 'cognitive laziness' 

If you've ever had a bad boss, you've probably thought to yourself, "I don't want to go through the effort of figuring out how to handle this situation. It sounds exhausting."

Instead, you find ways to convince yourself that your boss is actually fine. Riggio calls that feeling "cognitive laziness."

"We get lazy and kind of accept things the way they are," he says.

When a bad boss does something wrong, people often give them a "pass" instead of holding them accountable, because they think the boss is above the rules anyway. That can allow a bad boss to engage in even worse behavior with no consequences. 

People also tend to trust others similar to them, Riggio notes. If your coworkers appear to support your bad boss, you might feel compelled to follow the herd rather than take a stand, and your boss could stay in power without being questioned.

3. People equate good results with good leadership

To you, your boss might be a toxic manager. To someone else, they might be someone who delivers valuable results, like an increase in profits or a successful sales deal.

"For those leaders, the ends justify the means," Riggio says. "If they appear effective, people just don't question how they got there."

Bad bosses may seem effective at getting good results, but it often involves "collateral damage," like creating a toxic workplace by treating employees poorly or making unethical decisions, Riggio says.

Research from the Society for Human Resource Management shows how a toxic workplace can ultimately have a negative effect on a business' bottom line, especially considering the cost of turnover if those toxic traits do eventually convince workers to leave.

4. People enjoy the power of association 

Bosses often hold power within a company or group. Riggio says some people enable and assist a manager's worst attributes in the hopes of getting rewarded for loyalty, like a promotion or pay raise.

"A bad leader attracts hench-persons who surround them because they like being connected to a powerful person," he explains.

Riggio encourages people to recognize these psychological tendencies, so they can recognize when they're following a toxic boss. It also helps to understand what a good boss looks like, he adds: someone who achieves results while limiting collateral damage, shows genuine care for their employees and accepts help and feedback from others.

"[They] leave a team better off than they found it," he says.

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