Toxic Leadership: Recognizing the Signs and Protecting Your Team

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Saphia Lanier
Saphia Lanier

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As an employer, you’re responsible for the safety of your workers. But not just their physical safety — their mental well-being too. 

Toxic leadership: a woman writes on a board.

If you have managers on staff who don’t share the same mindset, it can lead to toxic behaviors that create unnecessary stress for workers. 

Toxic leadership is a major issue in companies today, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right strategies, you can identify and mitigate it in your organization.

Table of contents:

What is toxic leadership? 

Toxic leadership is a leader who abuses their power and disregards the well-being and development of team members. A toxic leader may exhibit various traits and manipulative behaviors that create a toxic work environment and hinder the growth and success of individuals and the organization as a whole.

Toxic leadership traits

Toxic leaders come in various forms. Here are some of the common traits you may find in toxic leadership.

  • Lack of empathy and emotional intelligence: Toxic leaders struggle to understand and connect with their team members’ emotions and needs. They may ignore personal problems, dismiss emotions, or lack understanding.
  • Micromanagement and lack of trust: Toxic leaders excessively control and monitor their team members, decreasing autonomy and trust. They may constantly check in, not delegate tasks, and second-guess decisions.
  • Unhealthy competition and undermining: Toxic leaders foster a toxic competitive environment, pitting team members against each other and undermining their success. They may encourage backstabbing, favoritism, and sabotaging others’ work.
  • Lack of transparency and communication: Toxic leaders withhold information, make decisions without input, and fail to communicate effectively. They may keep team members in the dark, not address concerns, and avoid honest feedback.
  • Bullying and intimidation: Toxic leaders use fear, aggression, and intimidation tactics to control their team members. They may publicly humiliate, yell, or threaten team members.
  • Inconsistent decision-making and favoritism: Toxic leaders show favoritism and make inconsistent decisions, eroding trust and causing resentment. They may give preferential treatment, make decisions based on personal biases, and disregard objective criteria.
  • Lack of accountability and blame-shifting: Toxic leaders avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes, blaming others instead. They may not admit errors, deflect blame onto team members, and refuse to learn from failures.
  • Resistance to feedback and growth: Toxic leaders resist feedback and personal growth, hindering their own development and that of their team. They may ignore feedback, dismiss suggestions, and refuse to engage in self-reflection or personal development opportunities.
  • Discriminates against employees: Toxic leaders may treat team members differently based on gender, race, age, or other factors. They may show favoritism or prevent certain employees from advancing in their careers because of personal biases. 

If you notice any of these behaviors in your managers, take action to reduce the impact of toxic leadership on your team.

The impact of toxic leadership

Toxic leadership can have severe negative consequences on both individuals and the organization as a whole. Some of the key impacts of toxic leadership in the workplace, according to a research report, include:

  1. Decreased job satisfaction: Toxic leadership behaviors contribute to lower levels of job satisfaction among employees. A toxic environment can lead to dissatisfaction, frustration, and unhappiness in the workplace.
  2. Increased turnover intention: Toxic leadership is associated with higher turnover intention among employees. Employees may leave a company with negative behavior and a toxic work environment for a healthier one.
  3. Lack of commitment: Toxic leaders negatively impact employee commitment to the organization. Employees who experience toxic leadership may feel disconnected from the organization’s goals and values, reducing commitment and engagement.
  4. Decreased productivity: Toxic leadership can be detrimental to employee productivity. Fear, mistrust, and unhealthy competition can hinder collaboration, creativity, and innovation, ultimately leading to decreased productivity levels.
  5. Negative psychological impact: Toxic leadership can have a significant impact on employees’ mental and emotional well-being. Employees may experience increased stress, anxiety, and even symptoms of burnout as a result of the toxic behaviors and unhealthy work environment.

Ignoring toxic leadership isn’t an option. Understanding the root cause and how to overcome it is key. 

Causes of toxic leadership

Toxic leadership can stem from various underlying causes, including:

  1. Personal insecurities: Leaders who feel insecure or threatened may resort to toxic behaviors to exert control and maintain their power.
  2. Lack of self-awareness: Leaders who lack self-awareness may be unaware of the impact of their behavior on others and may not recognize the need for personal growth and development.
  3. Organizational culture: A toxic organizational culture that values results over people and tolerates or rewards toxic behaviors can contribute to the development of toxic leaders.
  4. Lack of accountability: When leaders are not held accountable for their actions and behavior, they may feel empowered to engage in toxic behaviors without consequences.
  5. Poor leadership development: Insufficient leadership development programs and lack of support for leaders’ personal growth and development can contribute to the emergence of toxic leadership.

Now that you understand the causes of toxic leadership, it’s time to do something about it. 

Overcome and prevent toxic leadership

If toxic leadership exists in your business, don’t ignore it. Here are strategies you can use to eliminate and stop toxic leaders from hurting your teams and company potential. 

Clearly define behavioral expectations and core values

Establish clear leadership behavioral expectations and core values that promote a healthy work environment. This involves clearly defining the type of behavior that’s expected from leaders and communicating these expectations regularly. By holding leaders accountable for upholding these expectations, organizations can create a culture of respect and professionalism.

Tips to achieve this:

  • Develop a code of conduct or leadership charter that outlines expected behaviors.
  • Communicate these expectations through training sessions, employee handbooks, and regular reminders.
  • Provide examples of positive leadership behaviors to help leaders understand the desired conduct.

Provide leadership development programs

Offer leadership development programs to equip leaders with the necessary skills to prevent toxic behavior. These programs should focus on emotional intelligence, effective communication, and conflict resolution. Also, provide ongoing support and resources to help leaders enhance their abilities and promote positive leadership practices.

Tips to achieve this:

  • Conduct leadership training workshops or seminars on topics such as emotional intelligence and effective communication.
  • Provide resources, such as books, articles, and online courses, to support leaders’ personal growth.
  • Encourage leaders to participate in mentoring or coaching programs to develop their leadership skills.

Encourage employee feedback and reporting

Create a culture that encourages honest feedback and reporting to identify and address toxic leadership behaviors. Implementing anonymous feedback channels and establishing reporting mechanisms can help employees feel safe to report toxic behavior without fear of retaliation. This enables organizations to take prompt action and address issues effectively.

Tips to achieve this: 

  • Create anonymous feedback channels, such as suggestion boxes or online surveys, to allow employees to provide feedback on leadership behavior.
  • Establish a confidential reporting system where employees can report toxic behavior without fear of reprisal.
  • Communicate the importance of reporting and assure employees that their concerns will be taken seriously and addressed appropriately.

Address toxic behavior promptly and effectively

When employees report incidents of toxic behavior, investigate them thoroughly and take appropriate action. Waiting too long could lead to more issues or, worse, employees leaving your organization. By addressing toxic behavior promptly and effectively, employers demonstrate their commitment to creating a healthy work environment.

Tips to achieve this:

  • Conduct thorough investigations into reported incidents of toxic behavior, ensuring fairness and objectivity.
  • Support affected employees with counseling services or mediation to help them navigate the situation.
  • Take appropriate disciplinary action, such as corrective measures or training, to address the toxic behavior and prevent its recurrence.

Foster a culture of continuous improvement

Regularly evaluate and assess leadership effectiveness and organizational culture to prevent and overcome toxic leadership. Actively seeking feedback from employees and implementing changes based on their input helps to address reported toxic leadership issues. By fostering a culture of continuous improvement, organizations can create a positive work environment.

Tips to achieve this:

  • Conduct regular employee surveys or feedback sessions to gather insights on leadership effectiveness and organizational culture.
  • Actively listen to employee feedback and take it into consideration when making changes or improvements.
  • Implement strategies to address any identified toxic leadership issues, such as targeted training programs or policy revisions.

Lead by example

Leaders should model the behavior they expect from their team members. By demonstrating empathy, transparency, accountability, and a commitment to personal growth and development, leaders can set the tone for a positive work environment. Leading by example inspires trust, fosters a healthy work culture, and discourages toxic behavior.

Tips to achieve this:

  • Practice open and transparent communication with team members, sharing information and actively listening to their input.
  • Take responsibility for mistakes and demonstrate accountability for actions.
  • Show a commitment to personal growth and development by seeking feedback, attending training programs, and engaging in self-reflection.

Encourage collaboration and teamwork

Foster a collaborative and inclusive work environment to prevent toxic leadership. Organizations can prevent harmful competition and promote teamwork by encouraging trust and respect among team members. Collaboration and teamwork build trust and comradeship among team members and increase employee engagement and satisfaction.

Tips to achieve this:

  • Encourage team members to work together on projects and foster a sense of collective achievement.
  • Promote open communication and active listening among team members to build trust and mutual respect.
  • Recognize and reward collaborative efforts to reinforce the importance of teamwork.

Don’t allow toxic leadership to overtake your business. By implementing these strategies, you can gain control over the situation and create a healthy environment your employees enjoy working in.

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