Guarding the Gates: Interviewing for Toxicity

Early in my research on toxic leadership of Christian organizations, another researcher and I discussed the feasibility of developing interview questions that would weed out the toxic leaders among candidates.

So often organizations or churches suffer under toxic leaders for years, years that the organization wishes it had to do over again. Without a toxic leader.

I let the idea drop for awhile, but recently began considering it once again. Each time I brought it up to others their response was, “That would be the best thing since French Toast.”

Maybe not those exact words.

Things to keep in mind

As I have learned about abuse and how abusers interact and respond to confrontation, I have begun to create some possible questions that may be of help to those who are in a position to guard the gates of their organization or church from abusive leaders.

Firstly, it is important to remember that those who are far to the end of the abuse continuum [as explained in this article] are master manipulators.

They will lie without blinking an eye, something that is very difficult for Christians to believe possible of another professing Christian. Therefore, asking direct questions about toxic leadership is unlikely to get answers that will be of any help. An abuser is more likely to answer in such a way that asuages your concerns, even if it is an out and out lie.

Secondly, it is unlikely there are interview questions that assure you that you will get the information you need to make an absolute judgment.

There may possibly be research out there that will give you more information than this article is giving you [and I ask that you pass it on to me if you know of it], but the broadness of the human condition and psyche is unlikely to allow for any cookie-cutter solutions.

And finally, when I discussed the possibility of this questionnaire with one of the most respected authorities on abuse, he said, “There isn’t any reliable way to detect an abuser in an interview.” [Lundy Bancroft]

Discouraging. However, he did give some helpful suggestions. There is hope.

With those caveats, here goes

Recently, I have had the opportunity of interviewing men who are seeking leadership in my church denomination. I decided to experiment with this idea.

Because abusive individuals are known for blame-shifting and rarely, if ever, admitting their own wrongs, I sought to ask questions that gave them plenty of opportunity to do just that. In discussions with an FBI interogator, I have learned that the friendly way works better than washboarding. Giving the interviewee the sense you understand and appreciate them will open loose lips much more readily than threats.

So, as one candidate spoke of struggles with his wife, I asked him to describe how the arguments develop and the results. My expectation was that if he was abusive, he would describe his rightness and her wrongness and how she, in the end, came around to his view of things.

This particular candidate had been before my committee several years ago and I had concerns that he could possibly be abusive in the home. How he handled my questions now several years later was quite remarkable. He explained to the committee that he usually responds to his wife suggesting that he is upset, “I am NOT upset.” But he noted that he usually thinks it through over a bit of time and realizes that she is right and he apologizes to her.

His response calmed my fears. He did not in any way blame-shift or act entitled.

Suggested questions from BancroftGuard the Gates smaller

Bancroft gave some additional ideas of questions:

  • Describe two or three past relationships you were in and why they didn’t work out.

Bancroft says this may get at whether he “always blames others for everything or speaks disrespectfully of others.” An additional question may point more to his past positions of leadership: Describe your former employment experiences and why you left. 

  • Why do you think so many marriages are failing these days?

Bancroft suggests this may “reveal attitudes that women have become too resistant to men’s ‘leadership’ or other woman-blaming attitudes.”

  • Why do you think that domestic violence complaints have become so common in churches?

He notes this may “reveal whether the interviewee thinks domestic violence reports are often exaggerated or are often being used for nefarious purposes.” Because it is common in the church to believe many or even most reports of abuse are exaggerated, even among those who are not abusive, I would add that you need to be looking for a particularly callous attitude in the interviewee’s response.

Its a start

No guarantees, but as Bancroft noted in our discussion, “Someone who has worked with abusers for a long time develops quite a powerful intuitive radar, often picking up on things that we wouldn’t even be able to put into words.” He went on to say, “But even then we miss some people.”

It is important that those who are interviewing candidates for leadership in church and parachurch organizations get to know abusive leadership. Read all you can about domestic violence and leadership abuse [there are many similarities]. Get to know their psyche and sense of entitlement. Do all you can to understand their tactics and how they think.

In so doing, you can begin developing that “intuitive radar” of which Bancroft speaks. But be careful not to label without proof positive. As Christians we are still in the job of recognizing our own sin before extracting the speck from our brother’s eye [see article].

But we are also in the job of protecting the peace and purity of the church.

Guard the gates.

Recommended Reading

These are just a few recommendations. Many others may be found here.
Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. Berkley Books, 2002.
Crippen, Jeff, and Anna Wood. A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church. Greenville, SC: Calvary Press, 2012.
Lipinski, John, and Laura M. Crothers, eds. Bullying in the Workplace: Causes, Symptoms, and Remedies. 1st ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.
Enroth, Ronald M. Churches That Abuse. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993.
Simon, George K. In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. 2nd ed. Little Rock, AR: Parkhurst Brothers Publishers Inc, 2010.

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