Toxic leadership exists in virtually every arena of social life. It takes a special toll, however, in the workplace, where workers frequently feel particularly constrained to acquiesce to employers and managers whom they perceive as controlling their professional and economic destinies.
Toxic leaders in the workplace inflict serious and lasting harm on their employees, their colleagues, their organizations, and stockholders, even their customers and clients. They do so by virtue of their destructive behaviors and dysfunctional personal qualities. The garden variety “difficult boss” does not qualify as a toxic leader. Only those leaders who leave their followers and organizations measurably worse off than they found them—sometimes even totally destroying them—fall within this definition of toxic leaders.
Toxic leadership represents a social/psychological phenomenon, whose complexity is reflected in the fact that the same individual may be viewed as noxious by some and heroic by others, as toxic in certain situations and nontoxic in others, as intentionally damaging in particular circumstances but unintentionally harmful in still others. Consequently, understanding and defending oneself and others against various forms of toxic leadership require a multidimensional framework, one that takes into account both toxic leaders as well as their intended and unintended victims.
The Toxic Leader’s Side Of The Equation
At least six dimensions of the leader’s decisions and actions need to be considered. These include intentionality; intensity and duration of the harm; nature and number of destructive behaviors and dysfunctional personal characteristics; and significance and impact of the outcomes.
In terms of intentionality, leaders who deliberately injure others or knowingly enhance themselves at great cost to others we consider intentionally toxic. Leaders who inadvertently cause substantial harm to others by careless or reckless behavior or faulty character structure, including incompetence and cowardice, we categorize as unintentionally toxic. Intensity of the leader’s toxicity may vary considerably, as may the duration of harm; however, both intensity and duration must have a sufficiently significant impact to warrant the diagnosis of toxicity.
Behaviors of Toxic Leaders
Space limitations permit only an abbreviated list of destructive behaviors that qualify for inclusion in the toxic leader’s repertoire. Among the most destructive behaviors that toxic leaders use are the following:
- Violating human rights, by eliminating or destroying individuals through undermining, incapacitating, humiliating, intimidating, demoralizing, seducing, isolating, disenfranchising, and/or firing them without just cause
- Stifling constructive criticism and enforcing compliance with the leader’s decisions through inappropriate means
- Weakening and/or destroying the organizational systems intended to promote truth, excellence, and equity, and otherwise engaging in deceitful, unethical, illegal, and/or criminal behavior
- Setting followers against one another, identifying scapegoats, and/or inciting disdain or other mistreatment of those the leader perceives as his or her opponents
- Deliberately creating the illusion that the leader is the only one through whose special gifts the followers can succeed, thereby increasing the leader’s power and decreasing the followers’ self-confidence. This behavioral strategy may involve stimulating the followers’ most primitive fears and needs, including those for safety, material well-being, self-esteem, and meaningfulness
- Ensuring that the cost of unseating the toxic leader simultaneously destroys the organization.
This necessarily incomplete list of destructive behaviors combines with various character flaws to define toxic leaders.
Character Flaws of Toxic Leaders
Toxic leaders frequently exhibit a variety of dysfunctional personal qualities or character flaws, from lack of integrity to cowardice. Here too the following qualities represent only a partial catalog:
- Deficient integrity that renders the leader untrustworthy
- Excessive ambition, lust for power, and/or greed that result in ruthless self-aggrandizement
- Outsized ego, disproportionate narcissism, and/or arrogance that blind toxic leaders to their own shortcomings, thereby limiting any capacity for self-correction and positive growth
- Amorality that limits the toxic leader’s capacity to differentiate between right and wrong
- Inadequate empathy and compassion that prevents toxic leaders from grasping the actual impact of their actions
- Lack of intellectual and other relevant competencies that leads to misdiagnosing problems and failing to create appropriate solutions
- Cowardice that inhibits toxic leaders from taking necessary difficult decisions and actions.
The Followers’ Side Of The Equation
An adequate conceptual framework for toxic leadership also requires a complex understanding of those whose lives the toxic leader affects. In the workplace, this refers primarily, but not exclusively, to those individuals who work under the direction or authority of the leader. Although most followers, or in this case employees, would deny it, we often tolerate, prefer, and sometimes even create toxic leaders. As targets of toxic leaders, we followers respond in terms of three major components: our psychological and existential needs and fears; the sociohistorical context in which we exist; and the interaction between our individual capacities and experiences, on the one hand, and the environment in which we live and work, on the other.
Psychological and Existential Needs
Employees bring to the workplace the psychological needs and fears that stem from their individual psyches, as well as existential concerns that emanate from their common experience as human beings. Psychological forces that predispose individuals to seek out leaders include the need for reassuring authority figures to provide parental direction; the need for certainty, physical safety, and economic security in an uncertain and turbulent world; the need for approval and inclusion in some human group; the need to feel chosen and special, which may provide access to important centers of action; and the fear of one’s personal inability to challenge a toxic leader. Toxic leaders manipulate these needs and fears to bend followers to their will.
The circumstances of our human existence heighten our vulnerability to toxic leaders. Perhaps the most critical existential force is our awareness that we inevitably shall die under conditions we currently cannot foresee. The suppressed angst, or existential anxiety, that such awareness provokes sends us on an endless search for safety, certainty, and the meaning of our lives. This existential dread initiates our quest to escape death, at least symbolically, by achieving immortality through heroic deeds. Toxic leaders attract us with promises of security, certainty, noble enterprises, and heroic opportunities for immortality.
Our External Environment: The Sociohistorical Moment
The external environment pummels us with incessant change, turbulence, and uncertainty. Natural disasters, scientific and technological catastrophes, as well as social and political crises, unsettle followers. While uncertainty and change open the door to previously unavailable freedom, they also stimulate followers to reach for reassurance from the nearest source. In such perturbing circumstances, followers accept leaders who offer to restore order and safety.
Each culture also inculcates clear social norms and behavioral expectations. It articulates what constitutes outstanding achievement, a standard that sets the stage for heroic action. Moreover, each historical moment offers new challenges, from walking in space to discovering the cure for some dreaded disease.
The Individual’s Experience in the External World: Psychosocial Forces
We measure ourselves against the achievement standards set by society and its various institutions, including work organizations. When, by dint of our own capacities and opportunities, we meet society’s norms for achievement, our self-esteem rises. When we exceed those norms, we find ourselves acclaimed as heroes and leaders (since the culture rarely distinguishes carefully between the two). When we fall short, however, we often seek alternative routes to bolster our self-esteem. One common path entails joining the ranks of those already acknowledged as leaders so that we may share vicariously in their status.
Our perception that the leader (or the “boss” in the workplace) has special gifts, greater than our own, plays an important role in maintaining our acquiescence. This belief enforces our acceptance, even when the leader’s behavior crosses the toxic line. When the corporate culture reinforces the external culture’s criteria for leadership, we increasingly believe that employers or managers who meet or exceed those standards are worthy recipients of our respect and support. Such circumstances also undermine our personal confidence to challenge their decisions and actions. When leaders use toxic means—such as unwarranted threats to our employment—to ensure compliance, we are intimidated all the more.
Toxic leaders in the workplace rarely need to expend much effort or resources controlling those individuals who work under their authority. Rather, those in the grip of toxic leaders tend to keep themselves under control. Individuals daunted by toxic leaders convince themselves through a set of rationalizations that they cannot resist because they lack the skills and talents to do so successfully. Eventually, these rationalizations harden into a web of control myths that persuade the followers they should not defy the toxic leader, because that individual deserves to be in control by virtue of his or her strengths and the followers’ needs.
Dealing With Toxic Leaders
Although many employees who work under the aegis of toxic leaders silently endure their suffering, certain circumstances may induce resistance. For example, individuals tend to speak out against a toxic leader when they are sufficiently close to the toxic action to be aware of the serious harm being caused. When they identify with the individual or group being injured, followers are more likely to feel motivated to challenge the toxic leader. Moreover, when the costs of not speaking out outweigh the benefits, followers may feel compelled to oppose the leader, either privately or publicly. Occasionally, the emergence of a protester and/or a critical event can galvanize previously silent sufferers and/or onlookers.
Various strategies can be used to control or unseat a toxic leader, although the risks can be substantial. All strategies for deposing a toxic leader require careful planning. Such planning includes gathering relevant intelligence not only about the toxic leader but also concerning others who might assist or undermine the effort. Keeping an evidentiary journal or log of the leader’s toxic behavior is essential, since such documentation will help to induce others to act. Additional steps include identifying and collaborating with associates who not only recognize the harm being done but who also are willing and able to take measures to curtail the damage. Consulting trustworthy, experienced colleagues and opinion makers within the organization, as well as the toxic leader’s peers or advisers, can assist challengers in developing an effective operational plan.
Personal Strategies and Policy Options
Personal strategies and policy options exist for dealing with toxic leaders. At the individual level, personal strategies involve taking action on one’s own or in collaboration with like-minded colleagues. Acting alone is fraught with risks to the follower. Coalitions tend to be more successful than lone rangers in confronting toxic leaders.
Low-key approaches tend to work best when there is reason to believe the leader is both able and willing to change his or her toxic ways. Offering to counsel the leader, aided by a positive action plan with specific guidelines and benchmarks for change, can be a useful first step. If the leader responds positively, a schedule for future discussions and progress evaluations can be developed. “Keeping one’s cool” at every stage in the process is imperative to a successful outcome.
When toxic leaders are unable or unwilling to change their behavior and/or control their character flaws, then employees may work quietly to limit, offset, or, if possible, undo the damage caused by the leader. If that option fails, followers may take action to undermine the leader; however, this strategy presents serious moral dilemmas that must be carefully weighed.
If the harm to the organization warrants removing the toxic leader, resisters should join with others, particularly the most senior and respected members of the organization, to undertake this mission. The participation of the board is critical, but since the board usually was responsible for selecting the leader, opening the board’s collective eyes to the leader’s shortcomings often proves to be a delicate undertaking. One strategy involves individually approaching key board members either directly or through their trusted associates. Once a sufficient number of board members perceives the need for collective action, a meeting of the executive committee or the full board is in order.
If the board refuses to act, then informing the media offers another recourse. Since the media frequently face their own organizational and political constraints, this strategy must be undertaken in an informed and cautious manner. Finally, when it is evident that none of these strategies will work, or if the harm is limited to you, then leaving the organization may be the most realistic way for an individual to deal with a toxic leader.
At the organizational level, policy options can be developed for preventing the emergence and/or limiting the damage wreaked by toxic leaders. The selection process is key to spotting potentially toxic leaders. The selection process should identify the largest possible cohort of qualified candidates, who then must be screened by multiple layers of reviewers from various sectors of the organization. Intensive due diligence should weed out toxic candidates. The selection process should be as transparent as possible. Once they have been selected, leaders at every level should be reviewed regularly with input from the total role set with whom they interact.
Followers should insist upon selecting leaders who do not offer them illusions of safety and grandeur. Leaders who expect them to participate in the governance and conduct of the organization are less likely to require submissive followers. Followers, for their part, must confront their own anxieties and fears to ensure that candidates cannot manipulate them through proffering unrealistic visions for the organization and its members.
Maintaining open and democratic policies and practices throughout the organization provides a bulwark against toxic leadership. The requirement for leaders to conduct periodic accountability sessions with large segments of the organization to explain critical decisions that they have taken is another useful policy option for keeping toxic leadership at bay. Term limits tend to prevent or reduce toxicity by reminding leaders of their future return to the ranks of followers or their timed exit from the organization. Finally, in organizations that create respectable departure options, such as a transition period with organizational support, leaders are less likely to cling to power beyond their reasonable usefulness to the organization.
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