Toxic leaders are narcissistic, abusive, single-mindedly self-promoting, inconsistent, and authoritarian. Their leadership styles are devoted to advancing their own interests at the expense of the institution and their coworkers.
Hollywood has given us several iconic toxic leaders:
- Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street,
- Colonel Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men
- Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
Despite being in very different industries, these notorious leaders pull unsuspecting subordinates into ethically challenging positions that advance the leader’s personal fortunes or beliefs at the expense of the organization and staff.
Though such individuals should be rare, driven out by positive cultures and performance management efforts, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In Life Meets Work’s study on leadership, 56% of our sample of 1,000 college-educated men and women worked for a mildly (32%) or highly (24%) toxic leader. Employees working for these leaders had lower intentions to stay, higher stress and work-life conflict, and suspected their leaders of discriminating against them.
Toxic leaders seem like they should be easy to fix: just fire them. But that’s easier said than done. Many toxic leaders are highly successful. They bring in great profits, get lots of viewers, or otherwise seem to thrive — making them attractive to companies. Even the employees who had highly toxic leaders in our study were more likely to rate them as creative and courageous than those working for non-toxic leaders. Like poison apples, toxic leaders, despite their bad behavior, make it easy to justify keeping them despite larger ethical and long-term sustainability concerns.
Toxic managers run in an organization
Perhaps more problematic than the effects of one leader on a team or department is the way toxic leaders seem to transform the cultures around them, attracting others who share their approach to leadership. In our study, more than 80% of respondents with a highly toxic leader indicated that their leader was typical for their organization.
We also found that win-or-die cultures, where mistakes are harshly punished and one must maintain a constant show of strength against unbridled competition, have a strong relationship with toxic leaders. We found that 63% of employees working in such high-stakes environments report having a highly toxic leader compared with only 1% of those in less risky cultures.
Though we can’t be sure which comes first — the toxic leadership behaviors or the aggressively competitive culture — the two are clearly related.
Toxic leaders can be costly
In fact, we see this scenario repeatedly with the current spate of news reports about toxic leadership that led to ethical breaches, damaged brands, and costly legal fees.
- Volkswagon’s former CEO, Martin Winterkorn, was described by Fast Company as one of the worst leaders of 2015 for his toxic behavior and the unethical behaviors it may have bred. Their feature described his leadership as obsessively focused on “securing the top spot among global car manufacturers” and noted a tendency to publicly humiliate employees for their errors. The fear he created at the company may have contributed to employees installing illegal software to underreport the emissions of the company’s vehicles.
- Wells Fargo’s former head of the retail bank division, Carrie Tolstedt, crafted a toxic workplace through “extreme pressure, … calling their subordinates several times a day to check in on sales performance and chastising those who failed to meet sales objectives.” Though she delivered stellar results for a time, her leadership led to a major public relations disaster when it became public that her staff was opening multiple unauthorized accounts in customers’ names.
- Fox has been hit by a series of toxic tales, from Roger E. Ailes and Bill O’Reilly’s sexual harassment suits to the racial harassment suit leveled against comptroller Judith Slater. Though these cases focus on sexual and racial harassment, these behaviors can be considered methods of displaying strength through the disempowerment and abuse of subordinates. No wonder our study found that 81% of those working for highly toxic leaders believed that leader has discriminated against them, while only 8% of those working for non-toxic leaders feel the same way.
Changing a toxic culture
Simply getting rid of toxic leaders is insufficient, especially if they have been entrenched for a long time. The broader culture needs to be addressed directly or new toxic leaders will emerge to maintain the status quo. To address a toxic culture, you need to:
- Be honest about the underlying culture: Do employees and leaders feel such pressure to succeed that they would become toxic or tolerate others’ toxic behaviors?
- Use third parties to assess the culture and senior leader performance: Internal individuals may have an interest in protecting or avoiding conflicts with toxic leaders, and employees may not feel safe speaking to internal assessors.
- Enhance succession planning: Toxic leaders drive out and exhaust subordinates, leaving gaps in succession plans and making it difficult to fire a toxic leader quickly. Provide training and development opportunities that do not depend on the leader’s support.
- Reinforce appropriate behavior with the reward structure: Link bonuses and other rewards to continuous growth and employee wellbeing rather than rewarding large but unsustainable spikes in performance. Be especially wary of performance improvements accompanied by reductions in wellbeing.
- Invest in leadership development: Hold toxic leaders accountable for their behavior. Make it clear that other, less non-toxic leaders, can and will replace them if they don’t change their ways. Offer coaching and other behavior change resources for those willing to improve. Monitor progress and keep an eye out for backsliding.