Many people, at some point in their careers, will encounter a toxic leader. This is a manager who bullies, threatens and shouts, and whose mood swings dictate the office atmosphere. Toxic leaders are bad news for organizations. They bleed the energy and enthusiasm of employees, and often lower organizational productivity and damage corporate reputation. For small or start-up organizations, the toxic leader may even prove fatal to the business. To tackle the toxic leader, organizations must first understand who or what they are dealing with.
What Makes a Toxic Leader Tick?
This can be a difficult question to answer, and has been widely debated. Some people believe that the need for power and recognition is what ultimately creates and motivates the toxic leader. Others think that incompetence or insecurity drive toxic behavior in some people. The toxic leader is often described as self-centered, petty, abusive and interpersonally dangerous and harmful. Toxic managers can appear in different guises; the control freak manager, the unethical manager, the overly aggressive manager or the dictatorial and passive aggressive manager.
Regardless of the guise, employees always know one when they are faced with one. Toxic leaders prefer an unstable environment where their own unpredictable behavior is the norm. They are often moody and their emotional sensitivity is high. They are difficult to work for, because they often change their minds, can’t sit still and pay little or no attention to others. Toxic leaders often shout, weep, sulk, and gush, often without any apparent sense of embarrassment.
What We Can Do…
The best way to tackle toxic behavior is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Organizations can accomplish this by:
- Developing an organizational culture that strongly discourages toxic behavior. Have a stated set of organizational values, then interview with the goal of determining whether the candidate subscribes to those values. Detailed reference checking is also essential. Utilize a rigorous hiring process that screens out those who are likely to be, or become, toxic managers.
- Rewarding and promoting leaders who demonstrate that leadership success is not attained via toxic behavior.
Where toxic behavior is apparent, it is important to talk to the individual to try to get to the root of the problem. For instance, their behavior may have become toxic due to an ongoing stressful situation in their personal life. If an organization decides to try to help a toxic manager, they should be offered coaching with a qualified professional, who can get to the root of their toxic behavior and help them to change. It is also advisable to encourage the individual to have a medical examination to assess whether any underlying condition could be driving their toxic behavior, e.g. anxiety, depression, etc.
Conclusion We are not perfect. We all have our own particular behaviors, some that are engaging and others that are less so. It is important to be able to spot even the earliest signs of toxic leadership, and intervene to prevent such behaviors from harming employees and the organization even further. The HR Power Centre’s Recruitment and Performance Management modules can be particularly helpful in dealing with these issues.