Leadership Barometer 43 Toxic Leaders

March 22, 2020

We are all familiar with the word “toxic” and recognize that toxic substances are known to cause human beings serious injury or death. We are also aware that some individuals have mastered the skill of being toxic to other people.

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. There is documented evidence (see Trust Across America statistics) that high trust groups outperform low trust groups by a factor of two to five times.

Thankfully, the majority of leaders are not toxic. One estimate given by LTG Walter F. Ulmer in an article entitled “Toxic Leadership” (Army, June 2012) is that 30-50% of leaders are essentially transformational, while only 8-10% are essentially 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.

Why would a leader speak and behave in a toxic way if he or she recognizes the harm being done to the organization?

Is it because leaders are just not aware of the link between their behaviors and performance of the group?

Is it because they are totally unaware of the fact that their actions are toxic to others?

Is it because they are lazy and just prefer to bark out orders rather than work to encourage people?

While there are instances where any of these modes might be in play, I think other mechanisms are responsible for most of the lamentable behaviors of toxic leaders.

Toxic leaders do understand that employees 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 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. If the behaviors are not improved, then this leader should be removed.

You are a toxic leader

It is probably not obvious to you how much damage is being done 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. Trust will not grow in an environment of fear.

The antidote here is to genuinely assess your own level of toxicity and change it if you are not happy with the answer. This can be accomplished through getting a leadership coach or getting some excellent training. Try to read at least one good leadership book every month.

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.”

So what can you do that will have a positive impact on the situation without risking loss of employment? Here are some ideas that may help, depending on how severe the problem is and how open minded your boss is:

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 that part of the performance gap is a lack of trust in higher management and get some dialog on how this could be improved. 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. The Trust Across America Website is a great source of this information.

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 some progress can be made.

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 have the 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.

Another key reason why toxic leaders fail to see the opportunity staring them in the face is a misconception about Leadership Development. The typical comment is, “We are not into the touchy-feely stuff here. We do not dance around the maypole and sing Kum-ba-yah while toasting marshmallows by the campfire.”

The problem here is that several leadership training methods in the past have used outdoor experiential training to teach the impact of good teamwork and togetherness. Senior leaders often feel too serious and dignified for that kind of frivolity, so they sit in their offices and honestly believe any remedial training needs to be directed toward the junior leaders.

To reduce the impact of a toxic leader, 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, CPLP, 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.




Preventing Social Loafing

October 5, 2013

One Minute LateSocial loafing is a name given to the phenomenon where one or more people fail to pull their fair share of the load. We see evidence of it in every aspect of our lives from family slackers who leave messes for others to clean up, to sports teams where some players like to skip practice, to hospitals where some staff work at their own pace even when resources are stretched to the max.

We see it in church groups where one person will gladly take credit, even though she was not present at any of the events or meetings.

In a work setting, social loafing is the single biggest reason for team stress. I contend it is a rare team that does not experience some form of social loafing, and it creates ill will among the group every time.

The reason for the ubiquitous nature of this problem is that the work is never equally accomplished by all members of the team. Some people will have issues that prevent them from contributing as much as others. The issues may be legitimate, like a death in the family, or a chronic health condition, or they may be fabricated.

Since the load is never completely equal, those who pull more than their fair share become resentful of those who get equal credit but fail to do equal work.

A variation of the work setting is in the area of volunteer groups. It gets more tricky in these groups because people are stepping up to volunteer their time and talent for a cause.

Worse in the volunteer world...

In the commercial business arena, if a person slacks off, then he or she can be punished or even terminated, but in the volunteer world, there is much less leverage because the time is donated. In this case, some other form of inducement, usually peer pressure, is the only leverage that can help reduce social loafing.

Since this problem is debilitating to teams and is universal, is there a simple cure for the disease? I believe there is, but I also think it is not often used very well. The trick is to create an agreement at the start that everyone will pull his or her share of the load.

People usually buy into the concept at the start of a team: after all, fair is fair. It is only after the team gets going that life happens and the slackers are revealed. Good intentions at the start of an activity are necessary but not sufficient to prevent social loafing.

What is needed is an agreed-upon penalty or consequence that will befall a person who does not perform as previously stated.

Let me share two examples of how this works and how the concept really does nip the problem of social loafing in the bud. I will use one example in an online university setting and a second example in a volunteer organization.

I do a lot of teaching in the online environment. Students have individual assignments and team assignments (usually papers to write) where there is a lot of work to be done by several remote individuals. Students come into the team environment with all good intentions where all students will do their fair share of the work, but inevitably one or two people will fall behind the pace and hold the team back.

This lack of following rules causes the other members to scramble to get the paper finished at the last minute because one student did not do the assigned part. That infuriates the other students because their grade on the team paper is dependent on everyone pulling a fair share of the load.

In every single team there is this same problem to some degree. Occasionally it is hard to detect due to a particular set of individuals, but even there I see signs of stress when one student procrastinates a bit and leaves the others waiting and wondering.

The cure is so simple. If the penalty for goofing off is spelled out specifically at the start, then the stress goes away and performance improves.

Suppose the team agrees that all team members will submit their part of the paper three days before it is due, to allow time for editing and clean up.

Now comes the critical element. The team agrees that if one member does not comply with the agreed timing, his name will be left off the team paper, and he will receive no points for the weekly assignment. That is a very stiff penalty because it will immediately lower the final grade for a course for that student by one letter grade.

By insisting on a specific consequence to be agreed upon at the start of the course (when everyone has good intentions) then the social loafing rarely occurs. Reason: The would-be slacker has already agreed to accept the dreaded consequence, so there is no doubt about what will happen to him if he fails to meet expectations.

If he tests the system and finds he got no points for the assignment, he cannot cry foul. He already signed off on the consequence. The result is that he never does it again.

A second example is from a volunteer organization. Here we cannot specify leaving the person’s name off a paper because there is none. Instead we need to get more creative with a penalty. The time to brainstorm possible consequences for social loafing is at the start when the team is forming.

The team should brainstorm acceptable behaviors and then the group needs to identify what will happen to an individual if he or she does not abide by the established rules. Let’s take a specific example of a group that is planning an event. Each volunteer has a specific role to play, and they identify that any individual member not doing the job will be responsible for providing refreshments at the next meeting or washing the dishes after the meeting. This penalty is not debilitating, but the embarrassment factor of having to bring in goodies for the rest of the team should be a strong deterrent against social loafing.

You can come up with any specific penalty as long as it has two elements 1) the penalty is specified before the slacking occurs, and 2) everyone agrees to enforce the penalty.

Having a specific penalty associated with failure to perform up to good intentions is the most effective way to prevent social loafing or deal with it when it happens. Try it in your group and see how this simple step is like a miracle for better teamwork.


The Wimpy Boss

November 20, 2011

I have written about bully bosses a couple of times, but I never addressed the other end of the spectrum – wimpy bosses. While not as obnoxious as a bully boss, the wimpy boss can be exasperating in different ways. Let’s look at some of the characteristics of a wimpy boss and follow up with some tips in case you happen to be paired up with one.

I am reminded of the cartoon character “Wimpy” in the Popeye Cartoon, (I know I am dating myself – and as Groucho used to say, “If you’re dating yourself, you aren’t likely to have many children”). Wimpy was famous for the line, “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” That characteristic of postponing things is one of the hallmarks of a wimpy boss. Regardless of the issue, there are some bosses who do not want to face making a decision, so they ask for more analysis or more time. Eventually people get the message that there isn’t going to be a firm answer.

Another trait of a wimpy boss is that the person will not stand up for people who work for him or her. If upper layers of management perceive an individual incorrectly, the wimpy boss is going to be a “yes man” and not challenge the misconception.

Wimpy bosses do not hold firm to decisions made on principle. They bend with the breeze coming from on high and waffle when asked to take a stand on issues involving integrity. They are like chameleons and change colors to blend in with the background.

When a person is abusing other employees, the wimpy boss does not step in with strong action to stop the problem. Instead, problems are allowed to fester and well up because the boss has no strength or backbone.

What can you do if you have a wimpy boss? That is a really good question, because you are not likely to change this person. The weak habits are a form of self preservation, laziness, or just plain being gutless. No amount of coaching is likely to reverse a lifetime of bad habits in this area. If you are reporting to a wimpy boss, the best you can do is document your requests carefully and make sure you copy others, such as senior management or HR in on your requests.

Make sure the need for decisions have a date fixed to them and that a large number of people are aware of the delivery date. If needed, send reminders a reasonable time before the due date.
If you see some signs of strength emerging, reinforce the boss enthusiastically for taking action. It will serve to encourage stronger action in the future.

Lastly, training can help a wimpy boss learn how to handle difficult situations and also make more firm decisions. You may not be in a position to nudge the boss directly to get some training, but there could be indirect ways to let it be known that some additional seasoning would be beneficial. Each organization will have a different political hierarchy that includes not only the wimpy boss but also that person’s peers, manager, HR, and the Development Group. As an underling to a wimpy boss, you need to be careful how and when you point out opportunities for improvement.