Toxic Leaders: Watch out and Weed

Why are there so many toxic cultures out there?  And why would we choose such a strong word to describe workplaces? Well, when it comes to impacting people’s well being, both physically and emotionally, toxic is not an exaggeration. And when we add a difficult economic climate to the mix, fear abounds and toxicity rises. People are more protective, secretive, political,and their fear can lead to behaviours that contribute to toxic workplaces. 

Every day our phone rings at Canada Career Counselling and Calgary Career Counselling with people who are not only unfulfilled, but on the verge of quitting dysfunctional workplaces.  The leaders and teams we work with through The Leadership Success Group struggle with leading and working in these difficult corporate cultures.

And with the recession Alberta has experienced since 2015, we’ve seen a drastic rise in the number of these situations. Lean workplaces are left to clean up the negative cultures that remain. What can organizations do about this?

From my perspective as an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, I believe one of the major causes of toxicity is ineffective leaders who are not held accountable for doing their job of being a good leader. But note that the vast majority of ineffective leaders do not see themselves this way, making it more difficult to effect change.

For example, I was speaking to a leader I coach recently, and she feels that her supervisor is disengaged and not there for his team. My question was, what is his boss doing about this?  She said his boss isn’t likely aware there’s even a problem or is avoiding dealing with it.  My point is that it is every leader’s job to have a pulse on the effectiveness of his/her direct reports. All the way up to the CEO, and even the Board of Directors,gaining a pulse on leadership at all levels is critical, and this can only be done through getting input along the way from those being led. 

We like to use the analogy of a garden when we present on how to avoid toxic workplace cultures. It’s amazing how quickly weeds can pop up, and before you know it your garden is infested!You didn’t mean for it to become like this, but now it’s overwhelming, as the thorny monsters wreak havoc on your lovely plants, and seem so difficult to get rid of. This is akin to toxic leaders, who may fly under the radar at first. In fact, some of these leaders do not even realize that their behaviours are creating a toxic culture. Well intentioned people can even be toxic leaders when they do not realize their impact on others.

Others may be gifted with charisma, smooth talking their way to accolades in boardrooms, while taking credit for their  people’s work and, at their worst, bullying or being unavailable or disengaged (also known as “laissez faire leadership”). The reason we see more of these symptoms during tough times is because the leaders themselves may be feeling unsupported and fearful,leading to dysfunctional habits.

The team environments and corporate cultures that result from these toxic leaders are often described as negative, fearful, and highly political.  People are afraid to share ideas or to bring up issues.  Indeed, according to Ed Catmull, President of Pixar (2014): “A hallmark of a healthy, creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.” And according to Gallup, management is one of the top reasons people leave a job, even ahead of pay. This quote says it best: “People leave managers, not companies.” (Victor Lipman, Forbes (2015[LH1] )

So what can be done to prevent the weeds of toxic leadership from flourishing?  Three things:

  1. Select the right leaders and avoid promoting the wrong ones. This topic is near and dear to us at Leadership Success Group,and there are excellent, valid assessment tools and processes for both external. selection and internal succession planning that far too few companies use,instead relying on instinct, favouritism, and biased judgment.
  • Support leaders and hold them accountable for effective leadership. Ensure that leaders are properly developed and supported. Leadership is hard work, and without training, coaching and other ongoing development, it is even harder to be successful. In addition, leaders’ performance and merit increases should be at least partially determined by how effective they are at leading their direct reports. Collecting annual feedback from their teams is an important source of data on a leader’s performance that is far too rarely done in organizations.
  • Finally, weed out toxic leaders.  Once the evidence is gathered, don’t waste any time in getting rid of ineffective leaders, as the damage they can produce is far reaching.  And keep in mind that any leadership faults become painfully obvious when a company starts to grow (American Express Open Business Forum, 2013). A common mistake is to delay action, only making the tough termination decisions once turnover is soaring and engagement scores have plummeted.

Everybody has either worked for a toxic leader, or has seen a love done experience this plight.  It’s time to rid workplaces of these weeds and rebuild positive, healthy work environments.  After all, we spend much of our waking hours at work, why should people have to suffer toxic leadership?

By Dr. Laura Hambley
Leadership Success Group
Canada Career Counselling




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