Toxic leadership poses a dangerous threat to businesses, nonprofits, and teams everywhere. It’s a real and persistent issue—but it’s not contagious, nor is the cure controversial. So let’s eradicate this one, once and for all.
COVID-19 has delivered unimaginable pain and revealed the power of our perseverance. Its lessons will inform our future in both practical and far-reaching ways—from how we handle the possibility of future pandemics to how we respond to leaders, approach one another, and view our roles in the community and workplace.
Knowing that adversity grows us, I already find myself wondering what positive developments we’ll see as a result of this worldwide struggle.
Here’s one change I’d like to see: considering the current job market, I hope more leaders get determined about eradicating a pervasive epidemic that I encounter every day within the business community: toxic leadership.
If you think that’s overblown, make no mistake: toxic leaders are indeed a threat to human health–specifically mental health. There are medical experts who can address this aspect far better than I, so it’s not my focus today. But it’s worthy of attention. I encourage you to keep yourself educated on this topic (try articles like this one).
And most importantly, please get help if you are struggling. Don’t hesitate, and don’t wait.
As for this post, our focus will be:
- How to identify a toxic leader
- Why toxic leadership spreads within organizations
- How to fight toxic leadership—on many levels
Identifying Toxic Leadership
Before I name some of the most common symptoms present in a toxic leadership environment, a note of caution:
The list below may help you confirm that the leader already on your mind is indeed toxic; but it may also bring to mind other people—perhaps a counterpart or subordinate—who you’ve yet to realize could be a problem.
If this happens, I encourage you: don’t shake off those names as they pop into your head. Instead, take mental note of them, then print out the list below as a pocket reference card to keep on hand as you assess the situation in the days and weeks to come.
Symptoms of a Toxic Leader
- Doesn’t say “I don’t know”
- Points out team members’ weaknesses but does not discuss their strengths
- Finds ways to avoid personal growth or leadership development (often stealthily)
- People are silent in the leader’s presence, hesitating to share ideas or even answer questions
- Spotlights his or her own contributions without crediting others
- Studies others only to learn how to manipulate them, rather than to help them grow
- Avoids new ideas, advice, learning, or approaches
- Sees things through a me-first lens: Do I get recognition at work? Am I being criticized?
I’ll explore many of these symptoms in more detail later on. But for now, a caution against over-identifying:
It’s important to know that a non-toxic manager can show a few of these symptoms. Nobody’s perfect! But they won’t show all of them—and certainly not all the time.
When in doubt, here’s a simple way to tell:
When you invite a non-toxic boss to take advantage of leadership development or coaching, he or she will likely respond with enthusiasm. These leaders want to grow and become better—for their people, for their organizations, and for themselves.
But a toxic leader won’t show interest in leadership development. The reason might sound something like, “I’m too busy right now.” Code for, “I’m not interested in / don’t need improvement.”
That’s a major sign of toxic leadership.
Why Toxic Leadership Spreads
How on earth do toxic leaders keep their jobs? And why can they climb higher and higher within an organization, infecting more and more people as they go?
There are 2 related answers:
- The leaders above them are short-range thinkers
- The toxic manager often gets good short-term results
It’s actually pretty simple. The toxic leader’s focus on himself is a strong driver toward hard work, accomplishment, and achieving the goal. All of this can lead to short-term results.
When higher-ups see said results, they like the quick uptick, so they often choose to give this leader even more authority. But more farsighted leaders might sense what’s harder to recognize:
- This manager is sub-optimizing team performance.
- The company is losing excellent people because of this person’s toxic leadership methods. (Note: mediocre people don’t leave when the toxic manager shows up – only your best employees do.)
- The toxic leader is shutting down innovation that could create new opportunities for your company.
But these disastrous costs don’t result in an invoice to the company that says “caused by your toxic leader.” (Although I guarantee that if I could whip up that invoice, you’d see that his “results” are one of your greatest expenses.)
And while the true costs of this leader’s methods aren’t felt, those short-term “results” might move a revenue needle….somewhere…for a minute.
All of which leads to a sad truth:
It can be difficult to recognize a toxic leader before a great deal of damage has already been done.
But difficult does not equal impossible. Let’s learn how to fix this, then fix it.
Because great leaders eliminate toxic ones.
How Leaders Can Spot Toxic Leadership
If you work for a toxic leader, you know it. When you read through the above symptoms, your suspicions were only confirmed. Now what? Take a deep breath and skip down to the Fighting Toxic Leadership section below.
But if you manage a toxic leader, you might not know it. In most cases, it’s harder to recognize these folks from your vantage point, because they pride themselves on making sure that “people who matter” see them in the best possible light.
Here are some indicators to help you:
I & Me
All conversations contain predominant references to “I” and “me” rather than “we” and “them.” Lack of inclusivity is a sign of bad leadership and a defining factor of a toxic work environment.
When you have a meeting with the toxic leader and team, members of the group look to the manager before answering questions. And many people in the room might seem unwilling to chime in at all. These are signs that the toxic leader is undermining employee engagement and communication—or even stoking fear.
Whenever you ask the toxic leader anything, he or she always has some sort of answer for you (even if that “answer” meanders way off topic into a known area of expertise). Toxic leaders tend to be know-it-alls.
When things go well, the toxic leader identifies what he did to make it happen. When things go poorly, other names come up.
When you present a new idea to the toxic leader, she’ll get uncomfortable. This is tricky territory for her, because she wants to come off looking good in your book, but she doesn’t like outside input.
So, while she may initially act amenable, she’ll probably come up with reasons not to follow up. (Note: when you ask her why she hasn’t followed up, she’ll blame someone else. See above.)
He says things like, “Yes, I convinced Sarah to do that by appealing to…” or “I motivated Jon by dangling X carrot.”
The key insight here: he’s not interested in how encouragement can grow his employees, but in how he can use it to get something out of them. He’s proud of his manipulative abilities.
Fighting Toxic Leadership
In truth, toxic influences can come from many directions within your organization—your boss, a peer, etc. And the relationship affects the remedy. So let’s look at each role, and how to solve for toxicity within it:
We need to break this down further into 2 sub-sections: what to do when a toxic leader works for you, and what to do when you work for a toxic leader.
What to do when a toxic leader works for you:
Dear boss of a toxic leader:
The answer is simple, and you know what it is. To get rid of toxic leadership, it is necessary to eliminate the toxic person from his or her role.
Now, many high-level leaders—including boards of directors—are not willing to “risk” this cure. (Remember the short-term vision issue?) If that’s you or your board, consider offering the leader a final shot through coaching.
There are bad leaders who are teachable and absolutely deserve a chance to get better. But truly toxic folks will either flake out on leadership development or charge through a bunch of coaches, never truly engaging in a process that implies they might have room to grow.
What to do when you work for a toxic leader:
Best option? Recharge your career elsewhere.
It may be hard to leave your current job, but keep in mind that a toxic boss will not help your professional development, which means there might not be a way out unless you forge it.
Wondering how to improve your life while you’re still at your company but seeking another path? Good thinking. You can make your work life a bit more pleasant by giving your boss credit, asking questions instead of making statements, and not criticizing.
But please don’t linger. If you have a toxic boss, you’re working for a company that is too short-sighted to hire and promote more effectively—a company that isn’t focused enough on its most valuable resource: its people.
It’s time to find a new gig.
If you have a toxic co-worker, the best thing you can do is make yourself an excellent leader. Develop your behaviors into the exact opposite of the symptoms list above.
Try to avoid criticizing your toxic peers or openly competing, which will only stoke the fire. Instead, simply perform with the powerful attributes in your arsenal, ignoring the toxic colleague as much as possible. By doing so, you’ll be preventing the spread of such toxicity in the workplace.
When faced with a public attack from him or her, do not respond with statements, but use questions:
- “Oh, what brought you to that conclusion?”
- “What makes you feel that way?”
If you’ve realized that there’s a toxic person on your team (even if he manages no one, he can be toxic), show him this blog, or share other professional-development tools that you know and trust.
If he takes this seriously, he can reorient his destiny. If he declines the help, remove him from your organization.
Remember: failing to remove a toxic employee means you are promoting and enabling a toxic work environment.
Have you finally admitted that your difficult customer is in fact toxic? Ask him to find another supplier.
Your customer is not number one. Your people are! The toxic customer will degrade your team. Not worth it.
Furthermore, keeping a toxic customer will make you a toxic leader. Why? Because you are allowing toxicity in your workplace. And even if you are not a bad boss in other aspects, bowing to a toxic customer can poison your team.
If you have realized, whether previously or in reading this, that you are in fact a toxic leader, I congratulate you on your honesty and insight.
Now consider this carefully: those around you see you as self-confident, decisive, smart, in-charge, dominating, and achieving.
But you and I know the truth—a truth that might shock your co-workers: you are caught up in an endless, life-long battle to think well of yourself. It’s an exhausting and fruitless path, and you don’t need to stay on it.
If you’re willing to start discovering the cure, I’d love to talk with you. There are tools that can help. Lots of tools. But you must to decide that you want to help you.
Last updated on 16 February 2022
I had a lot of fear as I read this blog. I did not want to be a toxic boss. What I realized is that we all have a bad day occassionally as we may be thinking abour ourselves a little more than others. We also have areas that we can work on without being a toxic boss. The key is what is our theme? Do I do all those toxic boss indicators listed in the blog? If not, I still need to be aware of my weaknesses and not let them undermine my attributes in which I have strength.
Great observation, Luke. In fact, your comments make me smile, because the very act of questioning yourself proves that you are NOT a toxic leader. You clearly have a teachable spirit!
This is so good! It’s helpful that you describe practical ways to “fight” toxic leadership in all types of different professional relationships.