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How to Recognize Toxic Leadership

November 17, 2017

This is the first post in a three-part series on Toxic Leadership. You can find the second post here: How to Survive Toxic Leadership, and the third here: How to Prevent Toxic Leadership.

We’ve all been there: you like the company you work for, you get along with the people you work with, and everything would be perfect…if it weren’t for your boss. Bad relationships with supervisors are a leading reason why people leave an organization, even when all other aspects of the job are positive.

how to recognize toxic leadership

Practically everyone has a horror story of working for a terrible leader, myself included. (Not my current boss, of course. He’s flawless. Hi, Steven!) But there’s a difference between a tense working relationship and a truly unhealthy situation. In fact, research conducted on the topic of poor management has coined a term for it: toxic leadership. Though the definition can vary, a toxic leader is typically someone whose behavior negatively affects the organization and the people within it. Toxic leaders have a negative impact on the organization, and their high-profile status means their negativity can ripple out far beyond their own team. Here is how to recognize toxic leadership:

The culture and “vibe” of the organization are changing for the worse.

One of the most damaging effects of a toxic leader is how they can harm the core of the company. Think of it like an oil spill in the middle of the ocean, or a drop of food coloring in a bucket of water: these things irreparably stain their surroundings, and a toxic leader is no different. This is because toxic leaders often prioritize their own self-interest, even at the expense of organizational success. They are likely to make decisions or deals that gain them power, recognition, or financial success even if there will be long-term consequences for the organization. Of course, it’s not always a calculated move: toxic leaders typically do not reflect on how their actions affect others. But regardless of motive, these actions often lead to a palpable change in company culture. When the traditionally positive aspects of the organization’s philosophy or policies start to disappear, that’s toxic leadership at work.

Related: 4 Steps to Improving Your Organization's Culture

Your team doesn’t feel psychologically safe.

Although the effects of toxic leadership are felt widespread, they are most intense for the people who work directly with that leader. Does your team freely share ideas and feel safe to fail? Or does your leader take credit for the team’s ideas, gossip about others, and shoot down suggestions that they don’t agree with? What about favoritism—have you noticed that the team is divided based on who the leader personally likes or dislikes? These are hallmark behaviors of a toxic leader. Read more about why emotional intelligence is an important leadership trait.

You’ve noticed a decline in your job performance and satisfaction.

Anxious. Embarrassed. Incompetent. Do these emotions describe how you feel when you’re one-on-one with your supervisor? Toxic leaders bring out the worst in us by making us believe that we deserve their poor treatment. They are frequently unpredictable in how they will react or treat you, and that kind of erratic behavior makes it impossible to feel confident in your own abilities. They may berate you for making errors, either privately or in public, while rarely acknowledging your accomplishments. And forget about mentoring—toxic leaders are much more interested in talking about themselves than helping you develop. 

So, what to do if you’ve found yourself agreeing with all these points? The good news is, you don’t have to just grin and bear it—or walk away from a dream job because of bad leadership. Highly structured organizations are typically the most affected because status and power are held in such high regard. In these types of workplaces, tenure has historically made it nearly impossible to remove a toxic leader from their position of power.

However, times are changing and fairness in the workplace is reaching new levels of attention and buy-in. [Read: Why Your Company Should Strive for Gender Equality in Leadership.] Even the military is examining its policies to address issues of toxic leadership. No matter what type of organization you work for, there should be channels in place to safely and confidentially voice your concerns.

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Jaclyn Menendez, PhD Jaclyn Menendez, PhD 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.