Toxic Leadership

  • 5 mins read

A New Look at Solutions

Much has been written about toxic leaders with psychopathic traits and narcissistic personality disorders. Bad leaders leave a trail of diminishing returns, ruined reputations, failed products, employee litigation and disheartened staffs.
But applying labels doesn’t solve any problems. Leadership is relationship-driven, and organizational toxicity involves all levels – from followers to executive boards. Chopping off the rotting head won’t do the trick when the entire organizational system has been infected.
Companies that replace one dysfunctional leader with another often run through a series of CEOs in an attempt to find the right savior. They’re effectively changing seats on the Titanic.

Signs of Toxicity

There is no precise definition of toxic behavior. Most people recognize it as displays of arrogance, selfishness, manipulation, bullying, callousness and control. Toxic bosses may be smooth and polished with people they need, but disrespectful and harsh with subordinates.
Many toxic bosses achieve spectacular results and wind up in the limelight, so their transgressions are forgiven or tolerated. They use their ability to manipulate people to further their own careers, no matter the cost to the organization or its people.
In the short term, they act like heroes and create loyal followers who produce great results. In the long term, they create enemies, bend rules, and push the limits of ethics and relationships.When business results are positive, toxic behaviors may go unchecked. But when the bottom line takes a dip, CEOs lose their patience.

Resisting External Help

Unfortunately, companies often call in coaches or consultants only after reluctantly acknowledging the scope of their problems.
Even when they do ask for help, many CEOS have already chosen a culprit, and they try to dictate their agenda. When entrenched in defensive behaviors, leaders often resist attempts to change established patterns of negative organizational behavior.
Experienced coaches and consultants anticipate and push through this resistance. They are usually adept at evaluating toxic dynamics and preparing an honest, accurate evaluation.

Toxicity Prevention Plan

Perhaps what’s needed is a counterintuitive approach. Instead of viewing toxic leaders as liabilities, think of them as potential assets, innovators and rebels, urges management professor Alan Goldman in Transforming Toxic Leaders (Stanford University Press, 2009).
Working on the premise that “toxicity is a fact of company life,” Goldman offers 10 ways to prepare for its impact:

  1. Take a proactive, preventive approach to detecting and handling dysfunctional behaviors. Articulate strategies for identifying problems throughout the company.
  2. Find innovative ways to solve identified toxicity problems.
  3. Engage external consultants and coaches as helping partners, when necessary.
  4. Provide leadership and employees with emotional-intelligence training, which will improve relationships and toxin detection/management skills.
  5. Provide negotiation and conflict-resolution training for management and HR leaders.
  6. Develop organizational protocols for preventing, assessing and treating toxic behaviors. (Hiring an outside management consultant may be warranted.)
  7. Designate managers or HR leaders to function as toxin detectors and handlers. Companywide training in toxicity and counterproductive behavior is appropriate.
  8. Review your organization’s and leaders’ orientation toward workplace problems. How do you handle personnel and relationship conflicts? Toxin detection?
  9. Review your current grievance, mediation, arbitration and/or ombudsperson policies to determine compatibility with, and support of, other toxin-related initiatives.
  10. Use 360-degree feedback for early detection of interpersonal problems and dysfunctional behaviors.

Readiness for Change

Sometimes a situation has to deteriorate before people shout “Enough!” By the time HR, the executive board, the senior team and employees start using the “toxic” label, conflicts likely abound.
If top leaders or managers disagree about solutions, organizations may postpone making decisions and allow toxic behavior to continue. When the people at the top engage in power struggles, the consequences reverberate throughout the company: profit dips, layoffs, increased absenteeism and turnover, poor performance and abysmal customer service.
But fear and urgency are often good motivators, prompting leaders to face facts and do something. As Goldman notes, “Any transformation begins with a change in thinking and vocabulary.”
When coaches or consultants interview personnel about what’s wrong, they’ll listen for roadblocks and obstacles to readiness. They want to determine:

  • Where are the openings for change?
  • In which areas can there be a shift from negative to positive?
  • In spite of everything that’s wrong, where are the successes?

The coach or consultant will identify potential areas for success, shifting everyone’s language and thinking from deficits to opportunities.

Toxicity Correction Plan

Start with the following steps for lowering your organization’s toxicity levels:

  1. People must believe that change is possible and a realistic goal.
  2. Everyone must accept personal accountability and abandon the use of labels and finger-pointing. Employees at all levels should identify their role in a given problem and find ways to help instead of hinder.
  3. Everyone must agree to limit the use of negative language and focus instead on the organization’s overarching vision and goals. Consider training in positive leadership and the language of appreciation.
  4. Key parties must attend coaching sessions to improve their interpersonal relationships process and eliminate toxic stories. Coaches can help them identify their strengths and develop coping skills that address their deficits.
  5. Make training in emotional and social intelligence available throughout the organization.
  6. Prioritize social and emotional intelligence in frequent performance reviews.
  7. Consider recognizing small wins in project management to encourage appreciative communication.
  8. Hire or designate toxin detectors and handlers who are trained in early detection of dysfunctional behaviors. Establish a program for early intervention.
  9. Senior teams and executive boards should be charged with finding innovative solutions to their personal leadership deficits (i.e., appointing dual leaders for some positions, implementing collaborative leadership policies).
  10. Leaders should be encouraged to identify an expanded vision for the future – one that inspires people to work collaboratively.
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