Toxic Leadership

How To Spot It And How To Avoid It

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Toxic leadership as a concept was coined by Marcia Lynn Whicker, in her book: "Toxic Leaders: When Organizations Go Bad"

This phrase is linked with a number of dysfunctional leadership styles.

This leader is someone who has responsibility over a group of people or an organisation, and who abuses the leader-follower relationship and who leaves the group or organization in a poorer condition after they have left.

Barbara Kellerman suggests in "Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters" [2004] - that it may be analysed into seven different types:

  • Incompetence

  • Rigidity

  • Intemperance - lack of self-control

  • Callousness

  • Corruption

  • Insularity

  • Evil

Marcia Whicker describes toxic leaders as "maladjusted, malcontent, and often malevolent, even malicious. They succeed by tearing others down. They glory in turf protection, fighting and controlling rather than uplifting followers."

Analyst Gillian Flynn provides a graphic description of a toxic manager as the: "manager who bullies, threatens, yells. The manager whose mood swings determine the climate of the office on any given workday. Who forces employees to whisper in sympathy in cubicles and hallways. The backbiting, belittling boss from hell. Call it what you want - poor interpersonal skills, unfortunate office practices - but some people, by sheer shameful force of their personalities make working for them rotten."

Personal experience of this...

toxic leadership,how to manage change,change management,change managers,change management training Personally, I have twice in my career had the misfortune of working for a toxic boss. These guys were terrible to work for and made people's lives an absolute misery.

In business terms their "games" were always counter productive as everyone expended far more energy in trying to pacify or avoid them than in undertaking productive useful work. Each time was a nightmare, because:

  • These guys were bullies and like all bullies were fundamentally weak and insecure individuals

  • They led by "divide and rule" by setting people against each other

  • They lied and were duplicitous and untrustworthy in their dealings

  • They engendered a culture of fear and mistrust

  • The general atmosphere they created can best be described as evil because of its insidious nastiness and destructiveness.

Here are 3 of my best strategies for dealing with toxic leadership if you have the misfortune of working for a boss like that.

(1) Neutralise their assaults on you

Neutralise their assaults, or to [use a cricketing term] "dead bat" them, by never being seen to react to any of their games. Because, these people feed off of the negative energy they create – it energises them – so a non-reaction to their games deprives them of energy. Or to put it another way, evil feeds off of evil!

(2) Always wait before responding

These toxic people thrive on the reactions that they create. I have always found it best to never ever respond immediately. I learned to wait until I had calmed down, and then acted from a calm rational position. So, recognise and allow for the fact that it may [depending on your temperament] take you 24-48 hours for your emotional and nervous system to recover and re-stabilise after you have been on the receiving end of one of their assaults.

(3) Respond factually, accurately and supportively.

I have always found that a factual, practical and supportive response makes it easier and [more likely] for them to make the "right" decisions for my areas of business responsibility. It might seem counter-intuitive to act supportively, but the fact is these are fundamentally weak people and responding in this manner addresses their areas of weakness and insecurity and thus goes to the root of their toxic behaviour.

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Spotting toxic leadership and avoiding it

The only reason I am devoting any space or time to this negative subject is that in change management terms, having anyone in a leadership or a management position in your organisation who displays these characteristics is a poison that needs to be identifed and eradicated at the earliest opportunity.

Toxic leadership contaminates and infects an organisation beyond the immediate reach of the person creating it.

As a director of your business or organisation you are in the privileged position of being able to identify any areas of your organisation where toxic leadership may be manifesting and to be able to do something about it.

The best defence for a director is to pay close and regular attention to the culture[s] within your organisation. Undertake regular "cultural audits" of the the divisions, departments and operating units and subsidiaries in your organisation.

I have developed a diagnostic process called EEMap© which facilitates this process: EEMap Process Overview Notes

Recommended Resource

"The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why Followers Rarely Escape Their Clutches" - is an article based on the book by the same title: by Jean Lipman-Blumen [New York: Oxford University Press] 2005.

Synopsis: Toxic leadership is a growing - and costly - phenomenon. Yet individual and organizations can stop the insidious spread of toxicity, by understanding why we are seduced by the false promises of toxic leaders, and by setting up organizational defence mechanisms to counter the spread of toxicity. This author has some excellent suggestions.

Check out these additional and very practical resources on this site:

Process theories of motivation - Personal needs drive behaviour

Employee motivation techniques - How to achieve peak performance

Theory U: leading from the future as it emerges

Open Space Technology - How to create inspired meetings

How to give negative feedback - Without destroying the other person

Managing Personal Change - Resources HERE

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