Toxic Leadership: 5 Things to Avoid as a Leader

If you’ve ever had a boss or manager that was self-centered, manipulative, or controlling, you know what it’s like to be under toxic leadership. In the #MeToo era, toxic leadership has never been as much of a societal focus as it is today. More and more, organizations recognize that toxic leaders lead to organizational decline and unattractive work cultures. Dissatisfaction with leadership is a top reason that employees leave an organization.

According to Forbes, the military tracked an increase in suicide rates in soldiers who were in a defined toxic environment. In fact, the same study found that an estimated 20% of Army soldiers were exposed to toxic leadership. This is an eye-opener not just for the Army, but for all leaders. Toxic leadership has real consequences beyond just employee attrition.

To have a healthy and productive work culture, it is imperative to identify toxic leadership quickly. This helps to ensure it does not infect the whole environment.

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What Is Toxic Leadership?

Toxic leadership involves leaders who are self-serving, destructive and dysfunctional. Toxic leaders are self-centered and often wield an authoritative or manipulative form of leadership. When you consider that most people spend more time in the workplace than at home, the seriousness of toxic leadership is easy to see.

Signs Of Toxic Leadership

The signs of toxic leadership are easily noticeable. Below are some of the tell-tale signs of toxic leadership:

  1. Narcissism

You probably know if you have run into a narcissistic leader. They put themselves on a pedestal where everything is about them. They need to be admired, are extremely self-centered, and seem to have little to no concern for the well-being of others.

These leaders are extremely dangerous because they do not demonstrate that they have the best interests of their organization at heart. Instead, they prioritize their own interests. They tend to have low emotional intelligence and are all about how they are seen by others. They are often completely disinterested in the needs of their teams.

  1. Competition

Toxic leaders are competitive and will do almost anything to get what they want. Competition can be healthy given the right context, but a leader that will compete to “win” and take credit exemplifies toxic leadership.

These leaders rarely listen to the input of those around them, which shuts employees down and results in team disconnection. The arrogance of these leaders quickly leads to a toxic work environment.

  1. Discrimination

Often, toxic leaders will only associate with people that agree with them. They will not tolerate new ideas, differing opinions, or dissension. They love “yes people” and ensure they keep these people close.

Do you respectfully disagree with your boss and they find your disagreement completely unacceptable? This is a sign of toxic leadership at its worst.

  1. Intimidation

Leaders that lead by intimidation are manipulative and will bully their employees to get what they want. You may hear them say things like “I am not out to be popular.” They can rule like a dictator that should not be questioned – ever.

No one enjoys working for someone who doesn’t care at all about their perception. A healthy work culture involves getting along with others and making a genuine effort at conflict resolution.

  1. Manipulation

The manipulative leader is harder to spot initially – they are a little ninja-like in their behavior. They are very good at hiding what they do in order to get their way.

Abusive leaders use their power to help them gain what they want while leaving employees and others in the dust. They lie and turn people against each other to ensure their agenda is met.

How to Overcome Toxic Leadership

It’s true what they say – you become the average sum product of those you spend the most time with. This is something to pay attention to in your work relationships. You don’t want to pick up traits from a toxic leader.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a victim to toxic leadership. If you see toxic leadership at play, it is important to evaluate how you can insulate yourself from it quickly. If necessary, to avoid continued exposure to toxicity, you many need to find another position at the company you work for. If that still doesn’t get you out from under a toxic leader, you may need to find another organization altogether. Your mental health is important and should be preserved.

If you are leading a toxic leader, consider hiring an executive coach to work with this individual. The coach may conduct 360 reviews with the leader’s employees, team members, and others in the organization to provide direct feedback on needed behavioral changes. It may be necessary to remove this employee from the organization if behavior changes aren’t made once the need to make changes have been communicated. Inevitably, if you don’t remove the toxic leader, you’ll have to replace those under them- because they probably won’t stay.

Toxic Leadership – Worth Avoiding at All Costs

Know that toxic leaders don’t set out to be toxic but often develop these tendencies from some kind of childhood or professional trauma. That doesn’t take away from the truth that the effects of toxic leadership are real and should not be taken lightly. If you are experiencing the effects of toxic leadership, remember that you didn’t cause it, but you can and should take steps to minimize its impacts on you. Talk to HR and other leaders. And if necessary, extract yourself from under that leader.

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Filed Under: Consulting skills, Leadership