Leadership Barometer 132 Toxic Leaders

When a toxic person is the leader of an organization, the performance of that unit will typically be less than half what it would be under a leader who builds trust.

Thankfully, the majority of leaders are not toxic. The unfortunate reality is that one toxic leader in an organization does such incredible damage, he or she can bring down an entire culture without even realizing it.

Most toxic leaders understand that people are generally unhappy working under them. What they fail to see is the incredible leverage they are leaving off the table.  They just do not believe or know there is a better way to manage, otherwise, they would do that. 

If you are in an organization, there is a possibility you are in daily contact with one or more toxic leaders. There are three possibilities here: 1) you have a leader working for you who is toxic, 2) you are a toxic leader yourself but do not know it or want to admit it, or 3) you are working for a toxic leader or have one higher in the chain of command. I will give some tips you can use for each of these cases.

Toxic Leader Working for You – this person needs to become more aware that he or she is operating at cross purposes to the goals of the organization. Do this through education and coaching.  Once awareness is there, then you can begin to shape the behavior through leadership development and reinforcement. It may be that this person is just not a good fit for a leadership role, and removal may be necessary because not everyone can be “fixed.”

You are the Toxic Leader – it is probably not obvious to you how much damage you are doing by your treatment of other people. They are afraid to tell you what is actually going on, so you are getting grudging compliance and leaving their maximum discretionary effort unavailable to the organization. 

The antidote here is to genuinely assess your own level of toxicity and change it if you are not happy with the answer. You can accomplish this by getting a coach or some excellent training. Try to read at least one good leadership book every month. This scenario is the one with the greatest likelihood of success, but only if you are willing to work at it.

You are working for a toxic leader – in my experience, this is the most common situation. It is difficult and dangerous to retrofit your boss to be less toxic. My favorite saying for this situation is, “Never wrestle a pig. You get all muddy and the pig loves it.”

What can you do that will have a positive impact on the situation without risking the loss of employment? Here are six ideas that may help, depending on how severe the problem is and how open-minded the boss is. Note: any of these ideas can work or they can backfire depending on the severity of the case and how you approach the leader. Use judgment and caution at all times. If you sense resistance or anger, back off.

  1. Create a leadership growth activity in your area and invite the boss to participate. Use a “lunch and learn” format where various leaders review some great books on leadership. I would start with some of the Warren Bennis books or perhaps Jim Collins’ Good to Great.
  2. Suggest to the leader that part of the performance gap is a lack of trust in higher management and get some dialog on how to improve. By getting the boss to verbalize a dissatisfaction with the status quo, you can gently shape the issue back to the leader’s behaviors. The idea is to build a recognition of the causal relationship between culture and performance.
  3. Show some of the statistical data that is available that links higher trust to greater productivity. I have written about this in another article entitled, “Trust Improves Productivity.”
  4. Bring in a speaker who specializes in improving culture for a quarterly meeting. Try to get the speaker to interface with the problem leader personally offline. If the leader can see some glimmer of hope that a different way of operating would provide the improvements he or she is seeking, then you have made some progress.
  5. Suggest some leadership development training for all levels in the organization. Here it is not necessary to identify the specific leader as “the problem,” rather, discuss how improved leadership behaviors at all levels would greatly benefit the organization.
  6. Reinforce any small directional baby steps in the right direction the leader inadvertently shows. Reinforcement from below can be highly effective if it is sincere. You can actually shape the behavior of your boss by frequent reminders of the things he or she is doing right.

It is a rare leader who will admit, “Our performance is far off the mark, and since I am in charge, it must be that my behaviors are preventing people from giving the organization their maximum discretionary effort.” Those senior leaders who would seriously consider this statement are the ones who can find ways to change through training and coaching. They are the ones who will have a better future.

Most toxic leaders will remain with their habits that sap the vital energy from people and take their organizations in exactly the opposite direction from where they want to go. You may be better off finding a different position in another organization.   

To reduce the impact of a toxic leader, carefully and gently follow the steps outlined above, and you may be able to make a large shift in performance over time while preserving your job. You can even use this article as food for thought and pass it around the office to generate dialog on how to chart a better future for the organization.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPTD, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust.  He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind.  Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. 

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