Learn the signs of toxic leadership that damage your team and company.
What is toxic leadership? We all know the signs when we see them. But often leaders don’t recognize these traits in themselves.
For upper management, it’s a real issue because employees won’t always speak up about the toxic leadership styles they face. If you have a toxic leader in charge of your teams, they may be showing one face to their boss and another to their staff.
It’s clear that these negative traits impact your team. Every report you’ll find on management correlates high employee turnover with toxic culture, and your management sets the tone on your culture. In fact, a few years ago, SHRM reported that toxic management styles cost organizations $223 BILLION over the previous five years!
Today, I want to talk about those red flags of toxic leadership. There are signs and metrics you can follow to determine if someone’s leadership skills are harming your carefully selected team and culture. I’m listing five common traits of toxic leadership, how to recognize them, and even how to detoxify a leader!
I highly encourage you to consider these toxic behaviors in your leadership, but you must test this litmus against your own leadership process, as well. Sometimes we have toxic habits that we don’t recognize in ourselves. Once we notice these behaviors, we can improve and adopt a transformational leadership style for greater impact.
5 Toxic Leadership Signs
Today we’re going to discuss five common signs of a toxic leader. Any of these traits will lead to friction in your team and can create a negative company culture. Some of these behaviors are easier to fix than others, and we’ll discuss that a bit in the next section.
- Toxic leaders are arrogant & self-serving
- Toxic leaders cast blame instead of taking ownership
- Toxic leaders are unwilling to listen to feedback
- Toxic leaders fail to support staff
- Toxic leaders are deceitful or dishonest
1 — Toxic Leaders Are Arrogant & Self-Serving
I knew a leader once, we’ll call him George. And George was all about bragging. His leadership style was centered around building his own ego. To the point that he literally bragged in a meeting about doing something that was absolutely toxic. But he thought it was a good leadership move.
The story he told was about casting blame for poor team performance on his staff. When he told the story, he thought it was a funny anecdote. But there was nothing amusing about it. George was under pressure because his department was not performing. Instead of taking ownership and finding a way to fix the issue, he cast blame on two employees.
He decided to fire them. But instead of just firing them both himself, he tasked one great employee with the job of firing another, well-liked employee. That employee did as they were instructed but they didn’t believe it was the right decision. When they came back to report to George, he fired that employee, too.
He thought it was very clever to have the task done by the very person he was next to fire. George thought that casting the blame was a great way to deflect from his own responsibility. But in the end, George was the next one let go. And the two stellar employees were brought back on board.
Leadership shouldn’t seek to pad their own ego or talk excessively about their personal accomplishments. They definitely shouldn’t brag about being toxic. Instead, their focus should be on the accomplishments of their team as a whole and the success of individual staff members.
2 — Toxic Leaders Cast Blame Instead of Taking Ownership
As you can see in the case of George, he cast blame on other people to deflect from his own failings. In truth, your leadership ability is only as good as your team. A great leader takes ownership of their team’s performance and looks for ways to help team members improve.
Toxic leaders will cast blame on employees but never take any ownership for poor performance. At the same time, they will often take credit for great performance they may not have contributed to. When you’re looking for signs, see if your leader credits staff with great contributions. And pay attention when they constantly blame someone else for situations that need improvement.
3 — Toxic Leaders Are Unwilling to Listen to Feedback
When your team has an issue with processes or any aspect of the work environment, it’s the leadership’s job to take that feedback into consideration. A great leader will listen to any pain points and help the team come up with solutions that solve the problem. Some things need more adjustment than others, of course. If the issue can’t be fixed immediately, a good leader will be transparent with the employee, as much as possible.
Toxic leaders may not make time for staff communication. They might make time but not listen or they may simply disregard everything the staff brings forth. Think about how you would feel if you brought up obstacles that cost you time and energy or added to your work frustration. Now imagine your boss telling you they didn’t care or not responding at all. It can be frustrating. Your team will appreciate knowing that you hear them and value their experience with your team.
4 — Toxic Leaders Fail to Support Staff
A toxic leader doesn’t support the team. Because their main goals are often aligned with their personal needs, many toxic leaders simply don’t want to be bothered with the things that improve work for team members.
A supportive leader pays attention to staff performance. They listen to issues the staff brings forth. They help their team come up with solutions. And they always make staff feel supported with resources and care. When you do these things, your team is empowered to excel beyond what they’ve done before.
Transformational leaders know that supporting the team means that the team will perform at far greater capacity. And they will be happier and more productive in the process.
5 — Toxic Leaders Are Deceitful or Dishonest
When it comes to deceit and dishonesty, they breach the trust with team members. But they also speak to a lack of integrity in all facets of the leader’s life. Of course, there are people like this. You may overlook small white lies or little dishonesties. Many of us do. But when you see major dishonesty on a leader, you can’t keep them in that position. It erodes trust in the team.
Think of this from the perspective of the staff that works under the leader. What if you worked for a boss like George who I mentioned earlier? What if your boss lied to you or misrepresented facts? What if your boss threw you under the bus for his own mistakes? You’d leave that job, or he’d fire you deceitfully.
For the organization, a leader of this caliber means eroded company culture, unhappy staff, and a negative reputation as a place to work (and likely do business with). For the employee, it means a terrible work environment that can’t be overcome, no matter how much you enjoy the actual work.
How to Detoxify a Leader
We talk about toxic leadership in the most sensationalized way. We all do this. I have told stories about toxic leadership and they often include the very worst possible traits, like George mentioned above.
I do this to make the toxic traits clear. But in reality, sometimes toxic leadership is more subtle. It can come from leaders who are very earnest and committed to the company, but they don’t recognize their issues in communication. Painting every bad leader as “toxic” doesn’t serve you. You must recognize leaders for the skills they bring to the table and help them to develop in areas where they may lack. At least, that is the prerequisite for a transformational leader!
Every leader isn’t a born manager. In fact, managing staff is a very intricate talent. Not everyone is suited for it or well-versed in the best ways to motivate team members. Sometimes it’s a learning process. In other cases, it really might be a person who is just not a good fit for leadership or your company. It’s important to understand the difference between these two scenarios.
In the five traits above, number one and number five are deal breakers. Someone who is arrogant and braggy is not a good fit for any healthy company culture. Someone who is deceitful or dishonest will never have your team’s best interest as a priority. Those things can’t be fixed with training because they speak to the person’s core values. Those need to be in alignment with your own company’s in order to keep the culture healthy.
What about the other traits? There is an amount of using your own judgment here. Some fantastic professionals just aren’t built for leadership or they haven’t learned the skills that will make them truly amazing. There is always room for growth. In fact, a great leader will constantly strive to learn and implement new things.
Transformational Leadership Is Developed
Now that you know the five most common toxic leadership traits, you can more easily identify them in others. You can also use those traits to judge your own leadership ability. Of course you’d never want to use the worst traits, but you might find yourself doing things that are less than the highest vision of leadership for yourself.
For example, maybe you know you listen to your team but you notice that you don’t necessarily follow through every time in helping them with their pain points. Or empowering them with their pain points.
Every great leader works to improve at all times.
If you’re looking for tools that can help you fully master transformational leadership, our free meditation, Developing the Mastery of Leadership, is an excellent resource. With this meditation you’ll be able cultivate a mindset of unlimited potential for yourself and your team.