Are You a Toxic Leader? The Answer Might Surprise You

Authored by

NLI Staff
Anyone can become a toxic leader without even realizing it. Here’s how to recognize the warning signs so you can change.

When you picture a toxic leader, you probably think of Bill Lumbergh from “Office Space,” the classic bad boss who belittles and exploits people, or Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada,” the cold, intimidating manager who demands perfection. These textbook examples are easy to spot, but what about a manager who plays favorites or one who sits back and lets team members fend for themselves during a conflict? Do these behaviors count as toxic?

Research says yes. Leading scholars on toxic leadership define it as systematic and repeated behaviors that sabotage not only an organization’s goals and resources but also employees’ effectiveness, well-being, and job satisfaction. This is a wide net that covers even less obviously problematic behaviors, such as the scenarios above. Both can kill employees’ motivation and sense of belonging, which makes it harder for them to do their best work. Other examples include gossiping, withholding important information, and failing to help subordinates when they need it.

Hollywood stereotypes would have us believe that only a select few, namely those with a narcissistic or psychopathic personality, become toxic. In reality, anyone can unknowingly fall in this trap because toxic leaders are often made, not born.

Some people resort to dysfunctional behaviors when they’re worried about losing their status. Status is one of the five domains of social interactions that trigger a reward or threat response in the brain, which NLI has incorporated into its SCARF® Model. You develop a strong defensive reaction when you feel undermined, which could happen if you work in a toxic culture that champions unreasonable goals and rewards excessive competition.

Toxicity could also result from a mismatch between your leadership style and your team’s work style. While some actions are universally deemed unacceptable (no one appreciates a boss who throws objects at them, for example), others are up to your team to decide. Some people love having lofty stretch goals to aspire to, but others may think of them as impossible demands and a source of stress.

Regardless of the reason, the psychological harms of toxic leadership are well-documented. It’s associated with increased anxiety, burnout, and depression. It also does a number on productivity — it led to a 48% decrease in effort and a 38% reduction in work quality in one study. These negative effects can linger for a shockingly long time: Professional basketball players who trained under an abusive coach performed at a lower level and had more technical fouls than those who didn’t for up to 10 years.

Since 1 in 2 people quit to get away from their managers, not realizing you’re destroying morale can cost you the best people. By developing self-awareness and listening to the people around you, you can recognize and correct harmful behaviors. Here’s how.

Be a fly on the wall

One way to gauge toxicity is to observe your team’s behaviors. If your employees are acting out, research shows they may be responding to your toxic leadership. Are your team members verbally abusive toward each other, or are high performers turning into quiet quitters? Figuring out why can help you determine whether you’re the problem. For example, you may have created a tense environment by pitting employees against each other to drive results, or your star workers have given up on trying so hard because you don’t give them enough credit. Listen to what they have to say, then use The SCARF Model to find out what matters most to your team and guide the way you lead.

Take the temperature

To make sure your management style motivates all of your employees, seek feedback from them regularly. It’s a win-win: You get a realistic sense of how you’re doing, and proactively asking reduces the stress of giving and receiving feedback by half, according to NLI research. But if your subordinates think you’re toxic, they may not feel psychologically safe to speak up. Try using a Google form or a platform like Incogneato that allows individuals to share their feedback anonymously.

To get informative insights, phrase your questions as specifically as possible, such as, “Have I been giving you enough credit for your work? What other ways can I provide motivation?” or “Do I make you feel heard at meetings? What did I say that made you feel dismissed?”

Learn your triggers

Once you realize you engage in toxic behaviors, consider what triggers them and how you can change your response. Say you always stop by an employee’s desk to gossip after meeting with your boss. Maybe that’s because your boss hasn’t given you enough credit for your work, which makes you want to distract yourself by chatting about co-workers. A healthier coping strategy would be to address the issue with your superior and choose a different activity to blow off steam, like taking a walk or listening to music.

Everyone makes mistakes. It’s important to remind ourselves that it’s not our mistakes but the way we handle them that defines us. Whether you’re a seasoned or a freshly minted leader who just found out your employees think you’re toxic, it’s important to look at this as a learning experience with a growth mindset. Leadership is a skill, and like any other skills, you can improve it with practice and time.

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