Circumventing Toxic Leadership

Circumventing Toxic Leadership

Charles Goretsky Charles Goretsky
13 minute read

In an era where workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers (50.5 million in 2022 alone per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) combined with lowered birth rates and increased business demand, there will be an estimated global talent shortage of more than 85.2 million people per Korn Ferry. The current worker shortage is getting heavy coverage with a notable focus in the business press related to either improved recruiting or retention/engagement/employee experience solution sets. Toxic leadership can exacerbate retention issues.   

Given the handwringing over the situation and the resulting concerns about the labor market becoming one where employees and candidates have the most leverage, those of us who have worked through many economic and labor market cycles know that the tide will turn back (and forth once again) sometime in the future.  

What will not likely change however, is the existence of the manager or leader who is a terror to the people they interact with. In our experience, the term toxic leader seems to best describe the persona. Such leaders not only make work lives difficult, but they reduce the positive employee outcomes that help maintain and retain a healthy workforce. And all too frequently are those individuals identified late in the game - after they have ascended to higher-level executive positions. 

These are individuals whose leadership can be characterized by abusive behavior that they use to belittle, berate, bully, and manipulate people into doing their bidding. They are not pleasant to work for or with and are often observed to be some combination of controlling, self-centered, easily angered, and self-promoting.  

Their behavior is linked to all sorts of negative outcomes, as hundreds of studies conducted in corporate, governmental, military, and educational settings can attest. And what complicates organizations’ struggle to effectively deal with the behaviors and the fallout of the actions that these leaders take, is that they frequently are successful from purely technical and functional standards. It is the interpersonal part of a leader’s job where they make the majority of their errors, and when this is compared to the achievement of goals and objectives, all too often their employers are willing to look the other way.

First, a story about a brilliant doctor

Having spent a portion of my career as both an executive coach and HR Leader working with top leaders and high potentials in corporate and governmental settings across a wide array of industries and segments, it is inevitable that my path would cross with people like this.  Many coaching clients stand out, but one is particularly relevant here.  

He was a physician with impressive credentials and a reputation as a lifesaver. The volume of kudos from his patients and their families for his treatments and case management in particularly difficult and complex cases was more than impressive. The hospital CEO was simultaneously thrilled with his medical results and deeply concerned with his performance as a leader.   

The problem was that the members of the very large support staff under his leadership were terrified of him.  They reported that he lost his temper, reproached them for any mistakes or miscues (real or perceived), berated them during treatments and reviews, and in general left them feeling totally incompetent (their feedback). 

It is important to note that the hospital was very attuned to employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention. It was particularly proud of its reputation as a hospital with consistently superior care. It worked hard to be known as a destination for top nursing and support talent. 

The issue arose when the department that our physician oversaw was trailing all other departments by a rather large amount in the annual employee survey, which measures engagement, respect, communication, leadership, etc.  

The Hospital CEO called me in for a consult and asked me to coach the leader. It was a difficult assignment, with a client who was equally charming and resistant to considering change or fault on his own part. It was only after some very honest but compassionate discussions that he came to the realization that his behavior was modeled after the supervising doctors from his own residency who were, in his recollection, utter terrors.  When he recounted his own reaction to such treatment – lost sleep, feelings of insufficiency, etc., the impact of his own behavior hit home.  

The story has a happy ending – our doctor subsequently discovered the motivation for a more humanistic approach that really worked for him and reduced his stress immeasurably. Once the nursing and support staffers overcame the shock of his changed attitudes and behaviors, the survey scores rose, and the organizational improvement began. Our doctor had found a way to heal himself.

The real problem with toxic leadership

Research conducted in environments across the globe show some remarkably consistent influences of toxic leaders on an organization. They have been shown to negatively impact, at varying levels, engagement, organizational commitment, “civility”, intention to leave, absenteeism, trust, turnover, productivity, and motivation. 

The levels of stress that such leaders bring to bear are also significant, as their unpredictability leads to a lack of reliability about the leader’s direction and demands. Some of the research suggests that the stressors are brought home in terms of personal relationships, feelings about work-life balance, and general mental health. 

Perhaps most distressing were findings that at the organizational level, researchers found increases in “workplace deviance” by employees who report working for abusive supervisors. Such behaviors seem to be driven by a change in norms– a turning away from the behavioral standards and expectations of general civility, collaboration, and consideration of others’ ideas, perspectives, and feelings.  What we generally refer to as “professional” behaviors or comportment becomes altered in the face of standards that are introduced by toxic leaders’ behavior. The research suggests that the toxicity can creep throughout the system and change the way both managers and employees interact with and treat each other.  

 Preventing toxic leadership

Preventing toxic leadership

Core to the proposition that toxic leadership can be controlled is that avoidance is the best tactic for keeping it out of the workplace and that early recognition and intervention of a problem helps steer compliance towards a positive solution. This is a systemic approach that sends a message that can be reinforced by the many leaders who act in accordance with its basic tenets and can also be the basis of creating a leadership culture that is self-sustaining.

1. Define expectations. 

The starting point is to clearly define the expectations of quality and humanistic leadership. This comes in the form of leadership competencies and corporate values that are articulated in job descriptions, performance evaluation templates, leadership communications, and executive and management development programs. They are then reinforced by integrating them into performance evaluations as criteria being measured and coached on throughout the performance year, using these as promotion and succession criteria, and promoting such leadership behaviors as part of the employee value proposition (EVP). Another opportunity is to regularly publish and celebrate stories of humanistic and successful leadership behaviors that led to desired business outcomes as part of both employee communications and competency reinforcement practices.

2. Collect data. 

The use of objective measures of quality leadership is key to understanding the extent to which it is being practiced by each manager (functional and project executives, leaders, managers, supervisors, etc.). The use of employee surveys that directly request feedback on the defined expectations represent one of the best tools to understand the level at which each manager operates. Such surveys should be institutionalized and incorporated into the ongoing measurement of employee engagement/satisfaction/experience and manager performance.    

The tracking of turnover rates and reasons for leaving (RFL) through exit interviews or surveys should be conducted and reported out at the individual manager level.  Such data can be a useful (although lagging) and potentially valuable indicator of manager-employee discord. Keep in mind that employees might not list managerial behavior as their reason for leaving, so it is often under-reported. While transfers out can be a sign of positive employee development by a manager, a look into unusually high trends around employee separation and transfer rates over time can serve as an initial indication of toxicity.  

The application of 360-degree assessments are also very useful in this context, with a focus on lower ratings that are either downward (subordinates) or outward (peers) facing.

3. Select and promote managers carefully.   

Extra care should be taken in the selection of employees for promotion into project or functional leadership roles. One opportunity is to leverage validated assessments of leadership capabilities and/or style to make a more objective screening of candidates. Such assessments should be validated against a cadre of executives and leaders who regularly demonstrate respectful, humanistic leadership styles and behaviors. Further use of candidate managers’ historical records of employee engagement, feedback on their coaching and supervision skills from employees, turnover and RFL data, etc. can add tremendous value to a more objective evaluation of people with the proper leadership styles and behavioral preferences.

4. Intervene regularly.  

Whether a manager is identified as toxic or not, building an ecosystem of regular oversight and intervention is key to avoiding the issues and downstream effects of toxic leadership. The regular use of certified coaches to work with top executives and high potentials is one way to create a leadership norm around personal development, as such toxic behaviors could be caught and worked on with an external resource with whom it is safe to address such managerial issues. 

Include employee surveys and feedback, turnover, and other related data in all managers’ performance reviews to help with tracking, drive compliance with development and corrective plans, and reinforce expectations. Track the feedback for anomalies, emerging issues or trends, or indications that something about the leader’s behavior is cause for further investigation. 

Assign mentors who have positive results as leaders to managers who might be struggling with one or more aspects of positive, non-toxic leadership.  Mentoring from a more senior leader can be a powerful development activity and serve as an opportunity to have frank discussions about what behaviors are likely to help them grow and succeed, and those which will serve as derailers.

Keep an eye out for “peripheral” toxics

Keep an eye out for “peripheral” toxics

Not all toxicity is pointed towards direct reports – there are toxic leaders who treat their team (and their boss) well but denigrate and act poorly towards other teams and their staff. We think of such managers as “peripheral toxics” because their wrath is pointed outwards towards others they view as competitors or drains on their “divine right” to attention, resources, positive feedback, etc. Such individuals tend to show up as over-competitive and demanding, with behaviors such as constant interruption and denigration of others’ viewpoints, downplaying of others' accomplishments, unnecessary questioning of others' motives and behaviors, etc. 

Listen for concerns from their peers and their subordinates related to the peripheral toxic’s undercutting of other teams’ progress, downplaying their achievements and contributions, and complaining that he/she/their team can and does do it better. Such individuals tend to exert a negative impact on other teams, employees, and even partner organizations upon who they rely for services and products. Identifying them can involve listening for those who constantly complain about their peers and other teams, observing their behaviors and activities in staff or group settings and keeping an “ear to the floor” with peer teams and leaders who may be avoiding them or working with them. These are potential early warning signs of peripheral toxics who require intervention.

When these tactics don’t work

By the very traits that make them disruptive and negative forces in an organization, it can be difficult to turn a toxic leader into a constructive contributor to the organization. While our doctor might be viewed as an example of brilliance in coaching, the fact is that many others who operate in the extremes as he did do not emerge from a coaching, mentoring, or employment relationship with such a positive result.  

The key is to force such individuals to face their behavior and impacts. This is best accomplished through the regular, consistent, and timely presentation of data and examples of toxicity, plus the negative impact on their/other teams. Such consistency of messaging and data can often lead to the toxic leader moving out on their own, as both a sense and the messaging that they do not fit in the organization become obvious.

The challenge comes if the behavior does not lead to missed business goals and objectives; in fact, some research has suggested that the performance of a team might not be impacted by such leadership. Such a result is relatively short-term, however, as long-term outcomes such as engagement, willingness to collaborate, and retention have been shown to suffer, and those are real and costly business issues. 

At the end of the day, many more toxic leaders are terminated due to their leadership style and behaviors. They can be a cancer that is hard for the larger organization to recover from. Progressive discipline and coaching, supported by attentiveness to a variety of data sources plus clearly stated competencies and expectations that are integrated into performance standards and evaluations can serve to effectively manage such individuals.

Leverage Wowledge's relevant practices to circumvent toxic leadership

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