How to Avoid Becoming a Toxic Leader

Many employees (including supervisors, mid-level managers, and even executives) report they work for a toxic leader – someone who is mean, demanding, unpredictable, and who will use unscrupulous tactics to get what they want. A toxic leader is damaging to the health of those around them, emotionally and physically.

As a CEO and leader, you may be thinking, “I would never become a toxic leader”. However, the stress of leadership can lead some to behaviors inconsistent with their character.  In our research for Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, we identified ten characteristics of toxic leaders.  Here are some of the foundational traits that are helpful to know:

They Look Good. Toxic leaders are often articulate, skilled socially, and persuasive. They may be physically attractive, smart, have an impressive resume and highly skilled in the technical aspects of a business.

They're Extreme About Achieving Goals. Most toxic leaders are intensely committed to achieving goals. Hyper-focused on accomplishment, they use all of their resources to pursue their goal, and they are adept at getting others to complete tasks for them. It is important to note, however, that their goals are driven by self-interest and self-promotion.

They're Narcissistic. Toxic leaders act as though they’re superior—that they’re brighter, more cunning, and more talented. They view any good result as due to their talents, efforts, and leadership and they should get the credit for everything good that has happened. Although they won’t say so publicly, they believe rules don’t apply to them and are only for “little people”.

They're Manipulative. Toxic leaders are masters of manipulation— both of information and people. They’re masters of image control, making things look good by maintaining close control of all of the actual raw data. For the sake of “the larger cause,” toxic leaders will use and sacrifice those who work for them, no matter how loyal.

They're Condescending.  Toxic leaders almost always relate to others in a condescending manner.  Since they believe no one else is as talented or bright as they, they think their ideas should always be received with respect and deference.

How Do You Avoid These Traits?

First, you need to take appropriate actions to protect yourself from making poor decisions that could lead to toxic behavior. One way to that is to surround yourself with trusted advisors within the company that can give you a “reality check” when it comes to your behaviors, attitudes and decisions. Another way is to have a system in place to receive feedback from employees. Yet another way to avoid becoming a toxic leader is to have an objective third person in the room for any important conversations or meetings, so they can verify what was said or decided.

Second, it is critical to take care of yourself.  If you don’t, no one else will.  Set boundaries on how much you are willing to work. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Maintain friendships. Engage in activities that are renewing for you.

A third important step is to seek input from those outside the organization who can give you objective, wise input.  Leading an organization has a way of making our thinking “foggy”, so we don’t think clearly about ourselves or the situation.  Have someone who can give you a reality check on how you are thinking and the choices you are making.

Finally, make sure you have supportive relationships to help you through the difficult times.  The support can come from someone at work, family members or friends. But it is critical not to try to “go it alone” or bear the stress yourself – which puts you at risk for burning out, or getting sucked in to a dysfunctional system that will chew you up and spit you out.

Paul White, Ph.D., is a speaker, trainer, author and psychologist who “makes work relationships work”.  Dr. White is co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, and has recently released training resources to help businesses avoid becoming toxic.

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