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How to Prevent Toxic Leadership

December 15, 2017

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve had quite a bit to say on this topic lately. It started with an introduction to the concept (How to Recognize Toxic Leadership), because it is about more than just disagreeing with your boss or working for a micromanager. Toxic leadership occurs when a person in power negatively affects the organization and its people with their words or actions.


Of course, for those of you who are working with a toxic leader, you don’t need any help recognizing the warning signs. You’re probably all too familiar with their hallmarks of selfishness, unpredictability, and manipulation. You’re likely much more interested in how to preserve your own sanity (which I cover in my second post in the series, How to Survive Toxic Leadership). While there are some routes you can take to protect yourself against a toxic leader, a bigger question may be more relevant: how the heck did they get here in the first place?

One of the most damaging aspects of a toxic leader is that they can be a complete outlier in an otherwise healthy and functional organization, but once they’re in, they can destroy the morale and job satisfaction of the team, the culture, and beyond. They’re like Trojan horses, except they transport misery instead of Greeks. Rather than trying to mitigate their destructive influence, prevention is the best weapon we have against abusive leadership.

Here are some of the most effective ways to avoid hiring a toxic leader in the first place:

  • A thorough selection system specifically designed for the leadership level. Many organizations understand the importance of a robust selection system for their lower-level positions, but revert back to gut instinct and unstructured interviews for leadership roles. While it’s true that leadership ability is more complex to assess, that’s all the more reason to have a structured and scientific process in place. It's also important to not use the same assessments or interview questions that you have for non-leadership roles. You may think that you can extract the relevant information and fill in any gaps, but you’re putting yourself at risk for a toxic hire by not measuring their leadership-level traits such as delegation process, feedback style, or coaching vision. A leadership assessment should be conducted for internal hires, and we strongly suggest pairing it with an in-depth structured interview when the hire is external. For executive-level leadership roles, your smartest route will be a battery of assessments that identify strengths, styles, and warning signs along with an in-depth interview that identifies motivational fit.

    Read more: Choosing A Leadership Assessment: How and Why
  • Succession planning. No matter the size of your organization, you should have leaders-in-training who have the traits to be successful in a management role. Succession planning is not only smart from a pipeline perspective, it also ensures that the employee’s learned leadership style will reflect the company’s culture and values. By preparing current high potentials for future leadership roles, you’ll remove a fair amount of risk from the selection process. Think of your promising employees as leadership interns: you have the ability to observe and train them for a long time before putting them into a leadership position, and if they don’t develop the way you expected, there’s no harm done during the process. 

  • Understand what’s trainable and what’s not. While promoting from within and a strong succession plan can reduce toxic leadership occurrences, it can’t eliminate them completely. Assuming that you’ve put your candidates through a rigorous selection process, the next step is to understand the significance of their development areas. After all, few candidates will be a perfect match to what you’re looking for, but some deficits are more of a warning sign than others. For example, a good leader will typically have strong planning and organizing skills. But a candidate who scores low in this area on their assessment may still be a smart hire because planning skills are highly trainable. However, a candidate that scores low in a measure of self-awareness is a much riskier hire for a leadership position because self-awareness is largely innate and difficult to train. Individuals low in self-awareness may also have a difficult time understanding the perspectives of others, which in turn is a main antecedent to toxic leadership. It is wise to keep these trainability implications in mind when weighing a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.

    Read more: Developing & Engaging Leaders

In a perfect world, toxic leaders would never get the chance to be in power. But until then, you can arm yourself with the knowledge of what a toxic leader looks like, how to survive against them, and how to prevent them from being hired onto your team in the first place. 

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Jaclyn Menendez, Ph.D. Jaclyn Menendez, Ph.D. is a Project Consultant at PSI based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Her areas of expertise include testing, assessments, and project management. Jaclyn has contributed to the development, validation, and implementation of assessments with various clients. She has managed, analyzed, and presented data analyses for content and criterion validation studies.