Kevin Johnson examines the causes and consequences of toxic leadership – and what can be done to address it. (Article originally published as a series of three features on TrainingJournal.com)
How to stop toxic leadership from destroying your organisation
It’s the fairytale: the son of an electrician joins a multinational, becomes CEO and presides over a rapid rise to global dominance. But then the rot sets in. Macho leadership, lavish spending and insufficient due diligence bring the company to its knees. Under Fred Goodwin, the Royal Bank of Scotland became the world’s largest company by assets. Then it posted the biggest annual loss in UK corporate history. Much of the blame for the bank’s collapse was attributed to Goodwin’s toxic leadership style.
Toxic leadership hits the headlines when a CEO is affected. But actually it can be a problem for leaders at any level. The role of a leader should be to equip, enable, drive and then support the success of others, so they can add value to the organisation. Leadership becomes toxic when a leader attempts to coerce others. It shows itself in bullying, aggressive, arrogant, dictatorial or manipulative behaviour; ineffective communication; micro-management and a lack of empathy. A toxic leader can unfairly judge, attack, blame or ridicule others; strengthen and defend their own position; block ideas and exclude or ‘talk over’ team members.
Left unchecked, this behaviour can have a disastrous impact on teams and organisations. For example:
- It creates an unpleasant work environment. Toxic leaders micro-manage transactional details. Often, nothing is ‘good enough’ for them. This stifles any passion, innovation and energy in their teams. It breeds compliance, rather than commitment. This impacts not only on the culture of the team but on the entire organisation.
- It creates a false world of isolation where bad decisions get made. Team members become less open and honest with the leader, because they know their views and contributions will be ignored. Information gets withheld because there’s a concern that the leader will ‘shoot the messenger’. Poor judgements get made because the leader doesn’t have the right information. Their arrogance may impede any process of governance or due diligence, so their bad decisions go unchallenged.
- It creates a narrow, short-term focus. The leader becomes focused on driving results from the team, sometimes to the detriment of other functions in the business. Toxic leadership is often evident amongst functional leaders, who are vying for promotion and competing with their peers for budget and resources. Sometimes their goal is to get the next position, not to build a performance culture. As such, they don’t take a long-term view; they focus on short-term returns.
- It sets a bad example. There’s a danger that toxic behaviour can be seen as the benchmark for success in an organisation. When that happens, line managers further down can start to replicate the negative example of a toxic boss. Poisonous, detrimental behaviour then starts to ‘infect’ leaders at all levels of the company.
- Talented people leave. Studies show that talented individuals will leave if they don’t feel connected to their employer’s mission, if they don’t feel they’re adding value or if they’re no longer growing. A toxic leader is unlikely to make an employee feel connected to the purpose of the business – or feel valued. They won’t help that person grow; they’ll micro-manage them … or ignore them. So talented people are likely to jump ship to somewhere they’ll feel more appreciated. The cost of toxic leadership therefore goes beyond the impact it has on the present-day performance of the business. It can affect the whole future of the organisation, if it forces out the next generation of leaders.
The causes of toxic leadership
So why does it happen? Seven key drivers can bring about toxic leadership:
- It gets rewarded. Here’s the thing: people don’t set out to be toxic. Usually, their intention is to get results. However, sometimes the style they adopt, in order to do this, is over-weighted with toxic behaviour. But if this style achieves the desired result, the leader starts to rely on it. They then become locked in that style, ‘conditioned’ to behave that way. And those who get results get promoted. So the leader rises up the organisation and they don’t change their winning formula. Toxic behaviour remains their default response. At a very senior level, any short-term performance improvement is rewarded by a rise in the company’s share price. The Board get their bonuses. No one challenges the bad behaviour that drives success, even when the storm clouds are gathering. But, ultimately, that success is achieved at a very high price.
- The leader’s ego takes over. Instead of collaborating with others and building on their strengths, leaders start to believe they have all the answers and that they’re equipped to make the best decisions. Rather than valuing and including their team members, they simply want others to follow them. Anyone who dares to raise a counterview is shot down.
- An imbalance of traits. Trusted leaders demonstrate integrity, competence and compassion in their actions. But some leaders overly-focus on competence and they neglect integrity and compassion. Essentially, if a leader lacks one or more of these three fundamental traits, their behaviour will be toxic.
- A skills deficit. Toxic leadership can stem from a lack of fundamental management skills, such as an inability to delegate effectively or to manage upwards. If a leader doesn’t delegate well, or isn’t clear about why something needs to be done, their teams will never be able to truly deliver the requirement. The leader may then become aggressive, spiteful and controlling but the root cause was their own inability to delegate. Likewise, if they don’t prioritise effectively – and they simply demand that everything is urgent and important – this could be because they’re unable or they’re reluctant to challenge upwards.
- A quick mind. People in leadership roles tend to think quickly. If someone explains a problem to them, they may leap ahead to a solution. But rather than explain their thought process, they will simply give the answer – sometimes rudely and abruptly while their team member is still in mid-flow! This creates the perception that the leader doesn’t listen or they’re not interested in the team member’s opinion, which can leave that person feeling highly disengaged. But actually the leader has listened. They’ve just processed the information quickly and they’ve failed to take account of their team member’s feelings.
- What goes around comes around. A toxic leader could consciously or unconsciously be treating others in the same way that they were treated in the early days of their own career. When organisations value transformational ‘hero’ leaders, charismatic, macho leadership can be seen as the default way to achieve results. If an individual experiences this style at an influential stage of their development, they may try to replicate it when they eventually reach a position of leadership. For them, that’s the behaviour that brings success.
- ‘Imposter syndrome’. Some leaders have an innate fear that others will discover that they’re not as good as they’re meant to be. Their insecurity and limiting beliefs then drive toxic behaviour. They overcompensate by exerting their authority and belittling others, in an attempt to shield and protect themselves.
Undoubtedly, there is long-term value in addressing toxic leadership. An intervention is needed to tackle this behaviour. This can be initiated by:
- The line manager. If a leader’s behaviour is toxic, their line manager is usually the best person to have a tough conversation with them. With senior managers, the CEO should intervene to help them see the negative consequences of their behaviour. They need to have the courage to say that good leadership is not only about ‘what’ you do, it’s also about ‘how’ you do it. Ultimately, if the individual’s behaviour doesn’t change, that person should be asked to leave – even if they’re a rainmaker!
- HR practitioners. If the CEO’s behaviour is toxic, then HR can act as the catalyst for change. If HR is valued in the organisation, this could involve a direct conversation with the CEO, in which the HR practitioner ‘holds up a mirror’ to reveal the toxic behaviour. Here, the language used should not be accusatory; it should help the CEO to see the impact of their behaviour – and to understand how changing their behaviour will help others to succeed. Alternatively, HR’s role could be to initiate feedback and/or coaching for the CEO or for other leaders in the business (see below). Because they’ll hear complaints about toxic behaviour first-hand from disgruntled employees, or they’ll get insights into bad behaviour via the performance management process, HR practitioners are in a unique position to initiate an intervention. But they’ll need the courage and the will to address the situation.
- Feedback. 360-degree feedback is one way to help a leader understand how they are perceived by those around them. However, the feedback providers need to have the courage to tell that individual what they really think. Another option is ‘behavioural intelligence observation’. This is a process in which leaders are observed undertaking a specific task (such as a meeting) and they’re assessed according to how they use 14 specific behaviours. These behaviours indicate whether their leadership is trusted or toxic. For example, toxic leaders will more often propose their own ideas, rather than building on the ideas of others, and they’ll give much more information rather than inviting others to speak. Trusted leaders may do the same but their behaviour will be more ‘balanced’ between the two extremes. For example, they’ll be as interested in hearing from others as they are in expressing themselves. Behavioural intelligence observation has proved popular because it provides specific feedback and a tangible measure of a leader’s behaviour, in a safe environment.
- Coaching. Leaders sometimes have the wrong perception about coaching; they see it as a response to a development need. But many of the world’s highest performers – in sport and in business – benefit from having their own coach. HR practitioners should position coaching as a positive choice for toxic leaders. A good coach will help a toxic leader to see the reality of their behaviour and to think about the impact it has on others.
Ultimately, the challenge for toxic leaders who want to reform is to regain the trust of their teams. This is difficult … but it’s possible if the leader can demonstrate competence, integrity and compassion in every interaction with every team member. That’s the key to dissolving toxic leadership.
As well as tackling instances of toxic leadership, HR teams should take five steps to prevent it from arising in the first place. These are:
- Provide ‘early career’ management training. L&D teams should ensure that first-line managers are trained in the key skills of interpersonal communication, giving and receiving feedback, motivating others and having tough conversations. Early leaders need to learn how and when to ‘flex’ their leadership style to suit the circumstances. They should also learn to value the contributions of their team, so they manage by praise and reward, not by finding fault in others. The right way to lead must be instilled at the outset.
- Develop trust at all levels. A development programme on building trust – with each other and with customers – can be run for all levels of staff. This can help to champion the value of competence, integrity and compassion in the business.
- Assess leadership candidates effectively. Utilise personality, values, integrity and motivation assessments to gain a complete picture of your leadership candidates before they’re appointed.
- Provide feedback. Leaders at all levels can benefit from performance feedback that not only highlights their behaviour but shows whether it aligns to their personal values. Equipping managers with higher levels of emotional intelligence helps them to lead by example and it facilitates behavioural change. When behaviour is measured, people are more conscious of what they do, what others do and what needs to be done, to enhance effectiveness.
- Monitor the performance of leaders. If any potential signs of derailment or any evidence of toxic behaviour occur, nip it in the bud.
- Role model good behaviour. Leaders have a responsibility to set the tone for those below them. Showcase examples of positive leadership behaviour in your organisation.
- Retain a healthy balance of Board leadership. Board members should be appointed who have the courage to challenge any instances of toxic behaviour in the CEO or other senior managers.
Toxic leaders can gain clear benefits by changing their behaviour. If they learn to rely on their team, not just on their own capability, they’ll not only feel less stressed, their team will be more creative and it will perform at its highest capability. Instead of wasting effort on transactional activities, the leader will be freed up to spend more time on their strategic priorities and on coaching and encouraging their teams. In other words, they’ll get better results with less effort.
On top of that, the organisation will benefit from higher trust, a more positive culture, increased talent retention and ultimately enhanced productivity.
(Article originally published as a series of three features on TrainingJournal.com)