Toxic Leaders – why do we allow them?

BLOG20th Dec 2017

Back in October, I spoke at a seminar for HR and OD specialists on the topic ‘The Dark Side of Leadership.’ At first, I thought the topic had been requested due to the imminent arrival of Halloween, but was informed that it was chosen as it is an issue that has caused many members of the audience some sleepless nights.

In my preparation for the event I gave the topic a lot of thought. In my 30 years of leadership consulting I would argue that nothing is more toxic and more disruptive to an organisation than a leader who has gone to the dark side. The negative impact they have on the organisation and its performance is always significant. As Patrick Lencioni has pointed out, if there is even only one member of a top team who cannot be trusted then the performance of the entire team is undermined. The team can spend much of its attention and energy playing politics rather than focusing on improving performance. The impact of the toxic leader on their direct reports can be equally negative. They can encourage cliques, destroy confidence and create poor morale through withholding praise and emphasising blame. Any of us who have had the misfortune to work for a toxic boss knows how they can undermine our confidence and make us very stressed by endlessly criticising, highlighting faults and excluding us from the team. Edgar Schein pointed out that leaders create culture in the organisation. Toxic leaders create a toxic culture of mistrust between colleagues and departments, low morale and poor team work. We all probably know and recognise this, so why do we let them get away with it?

Jean Lipman-Blumen (2005) said toxic bosses can’t exist without the compliance of their followers. We, as colleagues or as employees, will very often permit toxic leaders to dominate and poison parts or whole of the organisation. We tolerate their bullying, their politics and their negativity, and in some cases, we may even reward it with bonuses and promotion. We turn a blind eye to the way they treat their staff and speak about clients. At the team meetings we don’t challenge the misogynistic comment, the snipe against another department or the constant disruption of the agenda. Why?

Machiavelli pointed out that leaders can be both lions or foxes. Like an alpha lion, very often toxic leaders are strong. They can be very loud and aggressive, intimidating others around them, and they effectively bulldozer their way into positions of authority which they revel in abusing. Other may be foxes, very good politicians who conspire, set traps and undermine the team. They thrive on creating a culture of mistrust where their political skills are invaluable. The foxes achieve their ends through divide and rule; to them the concepts of team work or cooperation are to be praised in public but undermined surreptitiously.

The Achiever can be a toxic leader. They are the individual who is a workaholic, pushes their people relentlessly and has little respect for anyone who is not from their background or department. The organisation tolerates their behaviour because they deliver results and the MD may offer any complainant the cold comfort of ‘you know what Dave is like! Its just his way’. This is, of course, a euphemism for ‘suck it up. I know Dave is toxic but he make us money.’ Another toxic leader can be the Expert. The individual who recognises that knowledge is power and builds a dependency on themselves that enables them to wield negative influence with little consequence. The organisation is terrified of losing them and their key skills so indulges their toxic behaviour or even rewards it to ensure them remain.

So how do we fight back? It is not often easy and it takes courage from the other leaders in the business. They have to challenge toxic behaviours and refuse to accept them. Top teams need public values around behaviours against which they are held mutually accountable. We can use 360 degree feedback to gain information (anonymously!) from colleagues and direct reports and use the findings to challenge behaviours. Daniel Goleman might argue that much of the toxic leadership comes from having a low level of emotional intelligence, and toxic leaders often have a high IQ but very low EQ. When we appoint leaders do we check emotional intelligence, or as they progress in the organisation do we carry out 360 degree EQ surveys and provide coaching or support to enable people to change some of their less appealing behaviours?

Unless we have been extremely fortunate in our careers most of us know that toxic leaders causes more conflict, waste more energy and undermine employee engagement more than any other factor in an organisation. To tackle it some times we need to take a deep breath and have that difficult conversation. If we don’t, we are accepting that at the end of the day the toxic leaders run the business, not us.

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