We Don’t Need Any More Toxic Leaders

Phil Eyre, Founder of Leaders

Times are hard enough, we don’t need leaders injecting their negative energy and suffocating our companies. And yet some of the behaviours associated with toxic leadership can become tempting when we’re under pressure.

There are too many toxic leaders around. The phrase was coined by Dr Marcia Whicker in her book When Organizations Go Bad. She describes leadership styles that are either overtly oppressive or subversive and undermining. Leaders who are self-interested narcissists and control specialists. They actively engage in coercion, punishment and even deceit to ensure that their agenda dominates. They rarely wake up intending to be bad people and yet they wreak havoc on organisations, demotivating talented colleagues, quashing initiative and shackling potential.  

Times are hard enough, we don’t need leaders injecting their negative energy and suffocating our companies. And yet some of the behaviours associated with toxic leadership can become tempting when we’re under pressure.

Driving Results - At What Expense?

Why is this? Aggression can be effective in driving financial results and getting our way in the very short term. Removing all humanity, empathy and compassion can too easily become considered as a positive virtue: ‘We’re here to hit the numbers, not make people happy.’ For example, the recent spate of layoffs in the technology sector has shown the willingness of some leaders to exit employees aggressively, sometimes callously, disregarding basic good behaviour in the pursuit of speed and savings.

The problem is that the medium and long-term costs are enormous. It doesn't take long for valuable stakeholders - talented employees, long-term clients, co-leaders, friends of the business - to walk away.

Toxicity not only poisons an organisation conceptually, but there can also be a physical impact too. Studies show a connection between toxic leaders and high levels of stress and cardiac problems amongst teams. We could quote from the US Army or the Stress Institute in Stockholm, but you will already know the impact if you have worked with an aggressive - including passive-aggressive - boss. We suffer.

 

What Does Toxic Leadership Look Like?

We are alert to these signals and symptoms of toxic leadership when working with our clients:

  • Favouritism. A select few gain all the rewards whilst the majority receive all the criticism;
  • Little or no encouragement or praise - feedback is all negative;
  • A singular focus on profits, with human factors absent from key performance indicators;
  • High levels of employee turnover, absence and other signs of stress;
  • Systems that encourage internal competition rather than team performance;
  • A culture of blame; and excessive working hours as the norm.

Neutralising Toxicity

Results do matter, but how the results are achieved matters even more. It’s about the way that people treat each other, ensuring that people are the priority, not just the profits. Excellent leaders recognise that 'how we do things around here’ is crucial, asking questions like

  • How do we support one another?
  • How are we challenging each other?
  • How are we connecting on a human level?
  • How are we respecting one another?

If we are to keep the whiff of toxicity at bay, we must challenge ourselves and confront toxic attitudes in ourselves and our teams - anger, rudeness and disrespect - regardless of the apparent success of the perpetrator.

We can reward good attitude, not only great results. We can take better care of people in need, even if we don’t feel we have the time. When things go wrong, we can pause and take responsibility rather than blame others. When things are going well, we can shine the light on others.

This is the time for a deeper level and higher quality of leadership. There can be no place for toxicity.

Phil Eyre

Founder of Leaders

 

GLOBAL LEADERSHIP SUMMIT
2023

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