Off-Ramps on the Path to Toxicity

“How many of you have worked for a toxic leader?" I was at a leadership conference when a speaker asked that question, and I was somewhat surprised at the number of hands that were raised. The response to the follow-on question was what I found most revealing (but not surprising). When asked “how many of you think you might be a toxic leader?”…there was dead silence. Yes, I would have been shocked if someone stood up and proudly proclaimed, “that’s me!” However, if a large percentage of people polled believed they’ve experienced toxic leadership, yet all of the leaders in attendance were comfortably in the “I’m good” category, where do all the toxic leaders come from?

I’m confident most executives/supervisors don’t place people in leadership positions knowing they have toxic tendencies—toxic leadership results in adverse effects on subordinates, the organization and mission performance, so why would they knowingly do so? However, they may inadvertently allow weak or inexperienced leaders to devolve to toxic levels if they a) fail to routinely assess the character, courage and/or motivation of their formal and informal leaders, b) overemphasize short-term productivity/results with an “at all costs” acceptance, and/or c) do not continuously monitor the health and culture at all levels of the organization.

Leadership is a learned skill, and it’s unlikely every person placed in a new leadership position will be 100% effective on day one. Therefore, supervisors have the responsibility—even the obligation—to help their subordinates learn to lead effectively. Doing so has to involve periodic structured feedback/mentoring sessions. However, it also requires observing them in action with a critical eye. Do they tend to use “I” more than “we” when talking about their section? Do they encourage healthy debate when faced with a challenge that must be addressed? Are they capable of making the tough calls when required? Do their actions set the standard for ethical behavior, or their words? A few guiding words at the right time, in the right environment can help prevent a weak leader from becoming toxic. It can be as simple as “This is what I observed, here’s how I perceived that action, and most importantly, here’s what I think you should consider in the future.” A few well-timed feedback sessions may help a weak leader turn the corner and prevent the slide to toxicity.

If a promising leader suddenly appears to be harmful to the organization, an introspective look at the operating environment may be warranted. I’ve seen cases where the message from the top of the organization (or at least the perceived message) is “failure is not an option”…or, “we must succeed in this effort at all costs.” A weak leader may see this a “pass/fail” performance check and push their organization well beyond their limits, or use aggressive tactics to drive performance to the “red line”. While this may result in short-term successes, the overall health of the organization suffers. If the subordinate leader is only measured against short-term results, with no value placed on the overall health of the organization, the stage is set for evolution to a toxic work environment.

Finally, I found there’s nothing more valuable than regularly scheduled climate assessments that help identify the overall health and culture within an organization. Periodic assessments help identify not only the current state, but more importantly, negative trends that might enable early intervention efforts. The response rate can be instructive, as low rates may be indicative of an “it doesn’t matter…nothing ever changes” mindset, or a true concern of retribution for frank and candid feedback…telling in and of itself. However, as useful as these assessments are, nothing beats walking around and talking with people to get a true feel for the health and welfare of a unit. Organizations will often take on the personality of their leadership. An unhappy, unhealthy work environment isn’t hard to spot…and the supervisors should be held accountable.

If at the end of the day you’re faced with toxic leadership within the organization, you may have no alternative but to excise it immediately. However, the proper support and mentoring of a struggling leader may prevent an unhealthy work environment down the road—and the people in the organization deserve no less.


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