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How to identify & address toxic leadership

How to identify & address toxic leadership

Toxic leadership in the workplace can severely and detrimentally impact every touch point of your organization. Toxic leaders use their power, authority, and a self-serving attitude in ways that negatively affect team morale, productivity, and organizational success. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon, either — recent studies suggest that up to 56% of employees feel they work for a CEO who fosters a toxic work environment.1

Left unchecked, toxic leaders can make healthy work environments virtually impossible. However, addressing the toxicity can help create a supportive workplace culture where team members feel valued and empowered. 

Learn how to identify and address toxic leadership behaviors here as we explore how to recognize the traits of a destructive leader and, more importantly, share effective strategies to manage them.

The harmful impact of toxic leadership

Toxic leaders can poison a company. Research shows this leadership style can lead to a 48% decrease in effort and a 38% decrease in output quality.2 These senior leaders can impact everything from team dynamics, to employee mental and physical well-being, to company culture. Toxic leadership traits often create an atmosphere that’s not constructive or productive. In extreme cases, a toxic leadership style can derail the success of your business.

On employee well-being

A toxic leader can produce a work atmosphere that affects employees at every level of an organization. People dealing with toxicity often become stressed and experience symptoms of anxiety or depression. Over time, they can become disengaged and experience symptoms of employee burnout that deter them from performing in their role.

On team dynamics

Most toxic leaders share a common trait — an intent to undermine team collaboration. They’ll willfully instill an unhealthy sense of competition rather than encourage cooperation and teamwork. They can go to great lengths to pit people against one another, using manipulation tactics and engaging in and encouraging gossip. Their behavior can effectively erode trust across an organization and lead to feelings of isolation.

On company culture

Toxic leadership can permeate an organization and create a hostile work environment that promotes disrespect and a sense of being undervalued. The leadership style cultivates fear and intimidation, impacting every aspect of company culture, from collaboration to innovation. 

On business success

A toxic leader’s influence can go far beyond employee well-being and company culture, though. It can negatively impact overall success, too. Toxic leaders can: 

  • Create a decline in job satisfaction 
  • Affect employee retention rates 
  • Impact the ability to attract and retain new and exceptional talent
  • Destroy team dynamics
  • Reduce productivity
  • Influence profitability

Examples of toxic leadership behaviors

Toxicity in leadership is about the person, not the company or brand — toxic leadership examples can be found at any company, of any size, in any industry. The impact can be devastating, which makes learning to identify common toxic traits so critical. When assessing your company’s culture, keep an eye out for several signs of a toxic workplace, including:

Micromanagement and excessive control

Micromanagers typically lack trust in their team’s ability to do the job. They will stifle creativity and autonomy, making the employees they manage unhappy and unsatisfied. 

How to address: Encourage senior leaders to delegate tasks and offer opportunities for advancement. Don’t tolerate a toxic leader crushing people’s values or sense of worth by micromanaging every move that’s made. 

Lack of transparency and communication

Some toxic leaders intentionally withhold information or don’t communicate important details with their team. The result is an environment where rumors thrive, and trust is diminished. 

How to address: Emphasize that transparency and communication are valued at your organization. Implement open-door policies and ensure there’s a way for people to get and receive constructive feedback. 

Favoritism and unfair treatment

It’s common for toxic leaders to have their favorites while mistreating others. Favoritism breeds resentment and anger, which can cause stress in the workforce, hinder productivity, and deplete morale. 

How to address: Establish clear and defined performance expectations across your organization for every role so accountability is easy to implement and fair. 

Bullying, intimidation, and hostile behavior

Bullying, intimidation, and hostility often come from a leadership role and are typical in toxic environments. Bullying is never OK, and it can make people feel uncomfortable and unsafe. It’s essential to understand how toxic leaders might use aggressive behaviors like these. 

  • Bullying: Leaders use bullying tactics like belittling comments or personal attacks to undermine and humiliate employees.
  • Intimidation: Leaders use threats and fear to manipulate employees.
  • Hostility: Leaders use excessive criticism, aggressive body language, or a raised or angry voice to scare employees and make them feel unsafe. 

How to address: Every company or brand today should have a strict, enforced zero-tolerance policy regarding bullying, intimidation, or hostility against coworkers or employees. If you’ve noticed a bullying trend in your company, it might be time to think about mandating training sessions to ensure your policy is understood and that people are compliant. Training can also be beneficial in helping employees know how to navigate if they’re being bullied or witnessing harmful behaviors. 

Failure to take responsibility for mistakes

Toxic leaders generally refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes or when things go wrong. Instead, they make it a habit to shift blame to their team, creating a lack of trust and contempt. 

How to address: Make it known that leaders in your company are expected to: 

  • Model accountability
  • Admit mistakes
  • Work collaboratively with their team 
  • Strive to find solutions instead of pointing fingers

Lack of accountability and blaming others

Beyond avoiding personal responsibility, another common toxic leadership trait is placing blame without addressing the root cause of a problem.

How to address: Regular performance evaluations at all levels help hold management accountable. They also offer an opportunity to promote self-awareness and highlight if behavioral changes are needed. 

Resistance to feedback and unwillingness to listen

A key characteristic of toxic leadership traits is the inability (or unwillingness) to take feedback or constructive criticism from peers, superiors, or subordinates. This mentality can hinder the potential for growth or change, exacerbating toxicity levels and creating further division between a leader and their team. 

How to address: Dealing with someone unable to take feedback can be challenging, but it is possible. You might not be able to change the toxic behavior, but you can put safeguards in place so employees can report conditions or interactions they find harmful or that are making their job difficult. 

How to address toxic leadership

Because it can wreak such havoc on employee well-being, team dynamics, and the overall success of a business or company, it’s crucial to be able to identify toxic leadership examples in your organization so you can address the behavior appropriately.

Foster a culture of open communication and transparency

Healthy work environments start with open communication. When it comes down to how to fix a toxic work environment, fostering a culture where your people feel safe and confident in expressing their ideas or concerns without being worried about repercussions is critical. 

Regular team meetings, anonymous suggestions or feedback boxes, and open-door policies can promote transparency and ensure employees feel comfortable reporting toxic behavior before things escalate.

Provide leadership development and training programs

Leadership development courses can benefit any leader, in any position. They can be especially useful for toxic leaders who often may not even recognize there’s a problem. 

The right training and development programs can help people identify areas for improvement while giving them the skills they need to lead effectively. You could host trainings that cover topics like:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Conflict resolution
  • Effective communication
  • Inclusivity in management techniques and practices

Encourage feedback and anonymous reporting

Make it a point to create and promote effective channels for feedback. Employees can identify positive and negative leadership traits, and making it easy for them to share can be a game changer.

Honest feedback that’s gathered through anonymous reporting tools — like online surveys or third-party hotlines — can help you address issues so you can hold a destructive leader accountable.

Establish clear expectations and hold leaders accountable

Clear expectations and guidelines should outline expected behaviors for every employee, including leadership. Ensure standards are communicated regularly and reinforced via performance evaluations, company policies, and — when necessary — disciplinary action.

If you identify toxic behavior, take swift action to convey that this leadership style is not in line with company values and will not be tolerated.

Implement 360-degree performance evaluations

Having a comprehensive evaluation process can benefit your organization on several levels. Be sure to gather input from multiple sources, for example:

  • Peers
  • Subordinates
  • Supervisors
  • When appropriate, clients or customers

Having various perspectives gives a deeper insight into someone’s abilities and leadership styles. 360-degree evaluations can help identify toxic behavior patterns before they infiltrate or become deeply ingrained in an organization.

Support affected employees through counseling 

Toxicity in leadership can take a lasting emotional toll that’s challenging for some people to overcome. Offering access to mental health services — say therapy for employees like the programs Talkspace offers — or other employee assistance programs (EAPs) shows your commitment to supporting people during the often-difficult time of healing from toxic experiences.

Consider disciplinary actions or removal of toxic leaders 

If attempts at coaching or retraining fail to create a positive change in behavior, disciplinary action might be necessary. When a toxic leader’s actions continue to impact the well-being of an entire team or organization negatively, it’s time to act for the greater good.

Prioritizing a healthy work environment

Expecting and enforcing a healthy leadership culture in your company is essential to fostering a positive and productive work environment. By prioritizing your employees’ well-being, you can prevent toxic behaviors from affecting the long-term success of your company. 

Proactive steps that address toxic leadership can come in many forms, from policy changes, to education, to reporting procedures. There are several ways you can combat toxicity and improve morale. Offering mental health services is a great start.

Talkspace offers mental health services so organizations can provide access to licensed, qualified mental health professionals who can help navigate personal and professional challenges.

Investing in mental health resources shows that you care about maintaining employee happiness. Reach out to Talkspace today to learn how they’ve helped countless other organizations implement mental health awareness and services to deal with toxic leadership behaviors for the betterment of their entire company.

Sources:

  1. Wolor CW, Ardiansyah A, Rofaida R, Nurkhin A, Rababah MA. Impact of toxic leadership on employee performance. Health Psychology Research. 2022;10(4). doi:10.52965/001c.57551. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9760724/. Accessed June 8, 2023.  
  2. Singh N, Sengupta S, Dev S. Toxic leadership: The most menacing form of leadership. Dark Sides of Organizational Behavior and Leadership. Published online 2019. doi:10.5772/intechopen.75462. https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/60316. Accessed June 8, 2023. 

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