Identifying and Dealing with Toxic Leaders

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

In my experience working with organizations, I have seen my fair share of toxic leaders. And, I commonly get asked these questions by HR personnel and employees in the organization:

  1. What can be done to proactively identify, prevent, and/or deal with toxic leaders (such as narcissists and bullies) who ascend and are kept on because they “get things done”?
  2. Are such toxic individuals and/or their behaviors even fixable? Are there ways we can recognize them and limit the damage they inflict on others before they toxify entire organizational cultures?

While I do not think I have all of the answers to these questions, I believe I can share some perspectives that can be helpful.

How to Identify Toxic Leaders?

The biggest challenge for answering this question is: how do you define “toxic?”

The reality is that leaders fall somewhere on this spectrum:

Spectrum of Toxic Leader to Great Leader

Recognizing this spectrum, here are some issues and questions:

  • At what point do you identify someone as “toxic?”
  • My experience is that the most toxic leaders are “good” for the majority of the time, but commonly step into toxic thinking and behavior.
  • Aren’t all accidental diminishers, in a way, “toxic?”

Thus, this question is tricky.

But, here are some things that I look for to determine the degree that a leader is likely to have some accidental diminisher or toxic tendencies:

  • What is the leader’s focus ratio related to results and culture?
  • What is the leader’s focus ratio on the short-term versus the long-term?
  • Do the leaders’ motives seem to be self-focused or stakeholder-focused?
  • What is the width of the leaders’ window of tolerance?
  • How good of a job does this leader do with emotional regulation?
  • How good of a job does this leader do with bodily regulation? (For example, when they are at a social event representing the company, can they keep their drinking “in check?”)
  • What are the well-being and engagement scores of those they lead?
  • Are they infusing fear into the organization, or are they lifting fear from the organization?

The more issues that arise as I go through these questions, the more I become concerned about their toxicity.

My experience is that essentially all leaders are operating in a manner that they think is best. So, I rarely find leaders who I think are deliberately toxic. But, I do find leaders, that despite their seemingly good intentions, negatively impact the well-being of their employees and the culture of the company.

I also think that more toxic leaders only exist because the environment allows for them to exist. Thus, we can’t just focus on the leaders, we also need to focus on the culture of the organization.

What are the Conditions that Allow for Toxic Leaders?

Toxic leaders can only exist in organizations where the executive team has not (1) clearly defined the expectations that they have for their leaders, and/or (2) taken action to uphold those expectations.

The cultures that seem to foster more toxic leaders have the following characteristics (which is largely driven by the executive team):

  • They care more about “talent” than learning and development (strong fixed mindset)
  • They care more about results and outcomes than about culture (strong results-focused promotion mindset)
  • They care more about hitting short-term milestones than long-term milestones
  • They have a strong fear of looking bad or failing
  • There is a lot of competition in the culture
  • There is little psychological safety

What Needs to be Done to Limit or Deal with Toxic Leaders Effectively?

Dealing with toxic leaders has to start with the executive team laying down clear and explicit expectations for the leaders in their organization. These expectations need to be written down and advertised in the organization.

Until this happens, it is going to be very difficult to hold toxic leaders accountable for their toxicity.

For more on this, see Section 4 in this great HBR article by Erin Mayer: Build a Corporate Culture that Works.

Next, the executives in the organization have to have the guts to let leaders go who do not live up the clearly laid out expectations, regardless of how productive they are, how much organizational knowledge they have, or how much revenue they bring in.

Per the article above, at Netflix, they state: “No brilliant jerks; the cost to teamwork is just too high.”

My Advice for Leaders (particularly executive teams)

In order for leaders to lead effectively, they must establish a strong leadership foundation. This requires a focus on and development of:

  • A clear, inspirational, and stakeholder-centric purpose statement (why we do what we do)
  • A clear, inspirational, and stakeholder-centric mission statement (what we do)
  • A clear, inspirational, and stakeholder-centric vision statement (where we are going)
  • Clear, inspirational, and stakeholder-centric values (how we do what we do)

If a leader can establish these, they will have built a strong and appropriate place to stand for holding “toxic” leaders accountable.

My Advice for Employees

When looking for an organization to work for, prospective employees should investigate the degree to which the organization and their direct leaders have established a strong leadership foundation, and the degree to which they focus and live up to the elements of that foundation.

If you step into an organization where only a weak leadership foundation exists, you can expect to experience toxic leadership, at least in pockets.

If You Want to Strengthen Your Leadership Foundation…

Let’s connect. I would love to help you establish a strong leadership foundation to ensure you are having the positive, uplifting impact you desire to have.

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