Today, I am going to share insights related to leaders, founders, and CEOs who often complain about their staff. Having trained leaders, CEOs, founders, government servants, entrepreneurs, and private company staff of more than 3,000 individuals since 2014, I have engaged in various formal and informal discussions, workshops, interviews, and chit-chats. Through these interactions, I have gathered valuable information about toxic leaders. I hope that the readers will take this information to heart and avoid exhibiting toxic behaviors if they genuinely care about their company, value their staff, and wish to prevent the headache of high turnover rates within their organization.
While effective leadership can propel an organization to great heights, the presence of toxic leaders can have devastating consequences, derailing the progress and potential of a company. Toxic leaders exhibit self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that not only hinder their teams’ success but also neglect the overarching mission and purpose of the organization.
Key characteristics of toxic leadership
Recognizing toxic leaders isn’t always straightforward, so let’s begin with a concise yet powerful definition:
“Toxic leadership refers to a combination of self-serving attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that detrimentally impact subordinates, the organization, and mission performance… Toxic leaders consistently employ dysfunctional behaviors like deception, intimidation, coercion, and unfair punishment to fulfill their personal desires.”
Toxic leaders often extend their toxic behaviors beyond their role as leaders and exhibit them in their interactions with team members and colleagues. While some may appear diligent and loyal to their organizations, the problem lies in their skewed priorities: They primarily focus on self-promotion, often at the expense of others.
Outlined below are common behaviors exhibited by toxic leaders or colleagues:
- Misuse of power
- Nepotism or favoritism
- Excessive protection of blindly loyal followers
- Expectation of unquestioning loyalty
- Engaging in gossip
- Deception, withholding information, or exaggerating problems
- Utilizing fear as a means of motivation
- Inability to accept constructive criticism
- Blaming others and shirking responsibility
If these traits resonate with your experience with a manager or colleague, it’s possible that you are dealing with a toxic leader.
How best to deal with them
Here are several strategies to help you effectively manage such individuals while maintaining your own well-being:
- Recognize that you can’t change them: While this realization may be disheartening, it’s essential to manage your expectations. Accepting the limitations of changing a toxic leader’s behavior allows you to focus on alternative approaches.
- Embrace personal growth: Take ownership of the situation by adapting your own behavior. Explore new strategies for dealing with a “bad boss” or toxic team member that aligns with your values and work style.
- Practice empathy: Although it doesn’t excuse their behavior, attempt to understand the pressures and challenges faced by toxic leaders. Some may be burdened by unattainable goals, resource constraints, or unrealistic schedules. Cultivating empathy can help you navigate the situation and potentially identify opportunities for support.
- Speak up: If your performance or emotional well-being is at risk, it’s crucial to report the toxic leader’s behavior. Maintain confidence, seek the guidance of a trusted advisor, and document instances of their toxic conduct.
- Consider leaving the organization: While transitioning to a new workplace is not always the ideal solution, sometimes it is necessary. Organizations that value their employees prioritize not only goal achievement but also the growth, development, and support of their team members. If your organization fails to prioritize its people, it might be an indication that it is time to move on. Provide honest feedback during your exit interview to raise awareness among those who remain.
Toxic leaders and difficult bosses pose a significant challenge to any organization. By implementing these strategies, you can make strides in managing such colleagues and contribute to the creation of an excellent work environment. Your commitment to inspiring leadership and fostering a positive workplace culture will benefit both your team members and the overall success of the organization.
Examples showcasing actions that can be exhibited by toxic CEOs, managers, or leaders
Disregarding employee input and ideas: Toxic leaders dismiss and ignore the valuable contributions and suggestions of their team members, creating an environment where innovation and collaboration are stifled.
Abusing power: Toxic leaders exploit their position of authority by exerting control and making decisions solely for personal gain, without considering the well-being or best interests of their employees or the organization as a whole.
Playing favorites: Toxic leaders engage in nepotism or favoritism, granting preferential treatment and opportunities to select individuals based on personal connections or bias rather than merit or competence.
Bullying and intimidation: Toxic leaders resort to aggressive and belittling behaviors, such as verbal abuse, public humiliation, or constant criticism, to assert dominance and instill fear among their subordinates.
Lack of accountability: Toxic leaders refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes or failures, instead shifting blame onto others and evading accountability, which erodes trust and undermines a healthy work culture.
Withholding information: Toxic leaders hoard information, deliberately keeping their team members uninformed or selectively sharing information to maintain power and control, rather than promoting transparency and fostering a collaborative environment.
Micromanagement: Toxic leaders excessively monitor and control every aspect of their employees’ work, demonstrating a lack of trust and stifling autonomy, innovation, and professional growth.
Undermining colleagues: Toxic leaders engage in office politics, spreading rumors, or engaging in covert actions to undermine their colleagues’ reputation, credibility, or opportunities for advancement.
Lack of integrity: Toxic leaders engage in unethical practices, such as dishonesty, embezzlement, or manipulation, compromising the organization’s values and eroding trust among employees.
Ignoring work-life balance: Toxic leaders create an unhealthy work environment by disregarding the well-being of their employees, demanding long hours, and neglecting the importance of work-life balance, leading to burnout and decreased productivity.
Discouraging dissent and open communication: Toxic leaders discourage open discussions, constructive criticism, or dissenting opinions, creating a culture of fear and conformity, where fresh ideas and alternative viewpoints are suppressed.
Failing to provide support and development opportunities: Toxic leaders neglect their responsibility to mentor, support, and develop their team members, hindering their professional growth and potential within the organization.
It’s important to note that these examples represent a range of behaviors that toxic leaders may exhibit, and not all leaders will display all of these actions. However, any combination of these behaviors can contribute to a toxic work environment and have detrimental effects on employee morale, performance, and overall organizational success.
Build a Support Network: Seek out like-minded colleagues who are also dealing with toxic leaders. Share experiences and support one another. Collaborating with others who understand the challenges can provide emotional support and help develop strategies for coping. Example: Schedule regular meetings or informal gatherings with colleagues to discuss concerns, share experiences, and offer advice on navigating the toxic leader’s behavior. By forming a support network, you can collectively manage the situation more effectively.
Focus on Self-Care: Prioritize your own well-being by practising self-care techniques. Engage in activities that help reduce stress and maintain your physical and mental health. Setting boundaries and taking breaks when needed can contribute to your resilience in dealing with a toxic leader. Example: Take regular breaks during the workday to engage in relaxation exercises, go for a walk, or engage in hobbies that bring you joy and help you recharge. Make self-care a priority to ensure you have the emotional strength to handle the challenges posed by the toxic leader.
Document Incidents: Keep a detailed record of instances where the toxic leader’s behavior negatively impacts you or others. Document specific incidents, dates, and any witnesses present. This documentation can be valuable if you need to escalate the issue later or seek support from HR or higher management. Example: Maintain a journal or electronic document where you record instances of toxic behavior, including specific details of what happened, any emotional impact it had on you or others, and any relevant conversations or actions that occurred. This record will serve as evidence if you need to address the issue formally.
Seek Guidance from HR or Higher Management: If the toxic leader’s behavior persists or escalates, consider reaching out to the Human Resources (HR) department or higher management within the organization. Provide them with a comprehensive account of the toxic leader’s behavior and its impact on you and the team. Request their intervention and support in resolving the issue. Example: Schedule a meeting with an HR representative to discuss the toxic leader’s behavior and its effects on the work environment. Present your documented incidents and provide specific examples of how the toxic leader’s actions are detrimental to team morale and productivity. Seek guidance on the appropriate steps to address the situation.
Develop Emotional Intelligence: Strengthen your emotional intelligence skills to navigate the toxic leader’s behavior more effectively. Emotional intelligence involves understanding and managing your emotions, empathizing with others, and adapting your responses in challenging situations. Example: Practice active listening when interacting with the toxic leader, demonstrating empathy and understanding. Use self-awareness techniques to regulate your own emotions and remain calm when faced with toxic behavior. Developing emotional intelligence can help you respond more skillfully and minimize the impact of their actions on your well-being.
Explore Opportunities for Growth: Take advantage of any growth or learning opportunities within the organization. Seek out projects or assignments that allow you to develop new skills, expand your network, and showcase your abilities to other leaders within the organization. Example: Volunteer for cross-functional projects or initiatives that expose you to different parts of the organization and provide opportunities to work with other leaders. This not only diversifies your experience but also increases your visibility to other managers who may recognize your potential and offer support or alternative career paths.
Consider External Support: If the toxic leader’s behavior continues to negatively impact your well-being and career growth, explore the possibility of seeking external support. This can include working with a career coach, therapist, or mentor who can provide guidance and help you navigate the situation effectively. Example: Engage a professional coach or therapist who specializes in workplace dynamics. They can help you develop strategies for managing stress, improving resilience, and navigating the challenges posed by the toxic leader. A mentor from outside your immediate work environment can also provide valuable insights and advice.
Remember, every situation is unique, and the appropriate actions may vary depending on the specific circumstances. It’s crucial to assess your own comfort level, the severity of the toxicity, and the available resources and support within your organization.
Managing toxic leaders is a critical endeavor for the well-being of employees, the success of the organization, and the cultivation of a positive work culture. Toxic leaders can inflict significant harm through their abusive behaviors, undermining employee morale, productivity, and overall organizational performance.
To effectively manage toxic leaders, staff members should prioritize self-care, build a support network, document incidents, seek guidance from HR or higher management, develop emotional intelligence, explore growth opportunities, and consider external support when necessary. By implementing these strategies, employees can mitigate the negative impact of toxic leadership and protect their well-being while fostering a healthier and more productive work environment.
It is important for organizations to recognize the detrimental effects of toxic leaders and take proactive measures to address and manage such behaviors. By fostering a culture of accountability, open communication, and ethical leadership, organizations can create an environment where toxic behaviors are not tolerated, and the potential for toxic leaders to emerge is minimized.
Ultimately, managing toxic leaders requires a collective effort from employees, HR, and leadership within the organization. By taking a stand against toxic leadership and promoting positive leadership practices, organizations can cultivate a supportive, inclusive, and high-performing work environment that benefits everyone involved.
In the pursuit of success and growth, organizations must prioritize the well-being and development of their employees. By addressing toxic leadership head-on, organizations can create a workplace where inspiration, collaboration, and excellence thrive, paving the way for long-term success and sustainability.