The qualities of effective leaders have been studied for more than 100 years.
Only recently have we begun to examine the harmful effects of leaders who do not embody these positive qualities.
Harmful leadership has been described as abusive, tyrannical, destructive, bullying, unethical, or toxic. Examples of toxic leader behaviors can include unfairly criticizing an employee’s performance, taking credit for an employee’s idea, or humiliating employees in front of their colleagues. Toxic leadership can involve passive acts such as failing to protect a subordinate’s welfare, or failing to provide a subordinate with important information. Toxic leaders may use fear or intimidation to control their subordinates. Sometimes their behavior may escalate to acts of physical violence (e.g., shoving, throwing things, slamming fist on a desk, or sexual harassment).
Researchers studying workplace bullying and “mobbing” (e.g., ganging up on a coworker, singling out an employee for harassment) have found that bullying has increased not only in the U.S., but in Europe, South Africa, and Australia as well.(1) According to the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying, one in five U.S. employees report being bullied with repeated, deliberately harmful verbal abuse.(2) Of those who had bullied employees, 41% were middle managers and 30% were senior managers, suggesting that the majority of bullying occurs at the top levels of the organization’s leadership hierarchy.
The Consequences of Toxic Leadership Behavior
There are serious detrimental consequences of these toxic leadership behaviors. At the individual level, studies have shown that toxic leadership is positively related to turnover and psychological distress, and negatively related to commitment, job and life satisfaction. Further, employees subjected to leaders who attack their self-esteem tend to have a diminished sense of self-efficacy (belief in their own abilities).
Researchers have also found increases in bullying behavior by subordinates who work for abusive supervisors (see “The Trickle-Down Effect of Toxic Leadership”). Such behaviors can include sabotaging operations, providing inaccurate or misleading information, and withholding help when a coworker needs assistance. Because of these detrimental outcomes, it is critical that organizations understand how to effectively manage toxic leaders.
How to Manage a Toxic Leader
- Any efforts to prevent or eliminate toxic leadership must first start with identification. The use of 360-degree feedback appraisals and anonymous climate surveys are helpful in capturing subordinate perceptions of their leaders.
- Potentially destructive leaders can be identified in the hiring and promotion process by including assessments of narcissism and other dark side personality factors.(3) Unfortunately, studies of executive hiring practices indicate that these validated psychometric assessment tools are rarely used.(4)
- Some organizations need a cultural shift in the way they assess performance. Good leadership must be measured not only in terms of accomplishing goals, but also in terms of “people” results – meaning a leader’s ability to grow, develop, and set an example for their subordinates.
- Expectations for fostering a climate of respect should be communicated, trained, and coached, as developing such a climate may not be intuitive for all leaders.
- Senior leadership should consistently model, communicate, and reinforce appropriate leadership behaviors. When formal training is not sufficient to deter toxic behaviors, senior leadership needs to take immediate action.
- Developing stronger followers is also important in managing toxic leadership behavior. Destructive leaders tend to rely on conformers and colluders to maintain their power (see “Are You Caught in a Toxic Triangle of Destructive Leadership?”). Making employee development an explicit criterion for promotion could reduce the likelihood that destructive individuals will succeed. In addition, by encouraging managers to develop their subordinates, organizations might make their employees less likely to conform to toxic influences.
- A longer probationary period (a minimum of one year) needs to be in place for new leadership hires. This will allow time for the “honeymoon period” to end and for charismatic and manipulative personalities to show their true colors.
- A whistleblower protection system needs to be instituted so that employees who have become victims of toxic leaders, or who have witnessed their destructive behavior, can feel protected when they come forward with information.
- Every new senior executive should be assigned an executive coach who has the capacity to report toxic behavior to the executive’s superior or the board.
In my experience as an executive coach, working mostly with senior level leaders, I’ve seen plenty of toxic leaders who continue to do harm to their employees and their organizations, despite all our knowledge about what constitutes good leadership.
Because toxic leadership is negatively related to employee performance, commitment, and job satisfaction, every effort should be made to reduce these destructive behaviors in organizations. Adequate resources should be dedicated to train and monitor leaders to ensure that they engage in appropriate leadership behaviors. Executive coaches can educate leaders to modify their behavior when they exhibit toxic patterns. Finally, organizations should ensure safe (anonymous and confidential) outlets exist for identifying leaders who engage in toxic behavior.