Toxic Leaders

We have all had some form of a toxic relationship in our journey, or if not, at the very least, we have certainly witnessed one. Toxic relationships are damaging, and there is no point for discussion here. In some of our relationships we have the power and control to detach and detox, but in others, it is difficult because there is some form of dependency. One of these cases is when we have a toxic leader at work.

In my work with companies and clients, I have come across several cases where toxic leadership was very evident. The employees of these leaders, in their majority, felt tired and exhausted, helpless and hopeless, and eventually moved out of the team or the company. In all cases, this had a devastating effect on the individuals, and sometimes even the business.

What makes organisations tolerate such toxic leadership?

Few reasons come to mind. The toxic leader is an expert in the field, has a lot of experience and is a valuable source of contacts for the business. It might be difficult to replace them or expensive to fire them.

Another reason may be that the toxic leader delivers, the targets are reached, the business is growing and since we measure success by numbers, all looks fine from a company perspective.

A third scenario could be that the whole company culture is toxic, and the leader just blends in nicely.

6 signs to help you recognise toxic leadership

  • Information hoarders.  Information is power and they hide it with the intention to control or feel powerful. Hiding information and not giving enough details sets people up for failure and this is something that scares them because they might need the job.

  • Surrounded by ‘Yes’ people. It is easy to float with the stream!  ‘Yes’ people provide no resistance and power the stream, empower certain behaviours and follow without questions.

  • Excludes people. Excludes competent people that might be a threat or liked by others. This is again done to undermine their capabilities and keep attention focused on the leader rather than anyone else.

  • Do not respect work-life boundaries. A toxic leader will disrespect working hours, weekends and holidays. A constant demand will be placed without justification as to why the work needs to be done out of working hours.

  • Micromanagement. A toxic leader is driven by fear and lack of trust. Micromanagement without a valid reason is a way to execute control and power over work and creativity. Employees will feel the constant pressure and the perceived feeling of underperformance without real justification.

  • High turnover in the team. Employees leave the team after a short stay and are not providing a lot of explanation or the leader is trying to justify their resignation with trivial reason such as: “it is time for change, everyone moves one day, it is better that they left…” etc.  

What can organisations do to prevent or correct toxic leadership behaviour?

Provide safe reporting channels. Create such channels and make sure that everyone knows about them. These channels can be a dedicated email with only one or a couple of people having access to it, appointed safe people (some companies call them ambassadors or champions) or whatever other communication tools your organisation is using.

Investigate and take action. Once you have a complaint, make sure that a proper investigation is carried out and there are follow up actions after. One of the reasons why employees do not report such toxic behaviours is that usually nothing happens after.

Coach the leader, support the employees. Try to help instead of judge. Both the leader and the employees affected will need support to move away from this situation. Coaching can be an effective way of supporting the leader to gain awareness, understand the effect of their actions and work towards a change. Use other support for the employees affected, such as psychological help, if needed.

Recruit, promote and build inclusive leaders. Make sure that you spot such traits at an early stage by using 360-degree or 180-degree feedback or different tools for employees’ wellbeing or psychological safety. When you recruit, employ people not only for skills but for values, kindness and compassion.

Revisit the organisational culture norms and see if there is anything that is stimulating, empowering, or provoking toxic behaviour, both at leadership level and at employee level. Culture can change if there is a deliberate action and will from the organisation.

Dragan is an accredited Coach Practitioner with the European Mentoring & Coaching Council (EMCC) and can be reached at [email protected] or by visiting www.carobconsult.com.

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