What Is Toxic Leadership?
The phrase, “toxic leader,” was first coined by Marcia Whicker in the late 1990’s and has evolved over time to be associated with a number of dysfunctional leadership styles. Although there are many definitions to describe leadership toxicity, in a January 2014 Forbes article, the U.S. Army’s definition is referenced to offer a succinct description as someone who demonstrates:
[A] combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects. The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term, but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops. Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers’ will, initiative, and potential and destroys . . . morale.
When this topic was first posed by one of our students in the Inspire blog community, I immediately knew I wanted to respond. It’s a question that I have asked myself for many years. I chose human resources as my first career because I wanted to help level the playing field and ensure that each person received fair treatment. I was a strong supporter of organizational justice.
Later, when I left the corporate world to enter higher education, my focus turned to helping transform the toxic leader. It is common for typical work environments to serve as a catalyst and enabler for toxic leadership. Through higher education – a place where we prepare future leaders – I sought to incorporate teachings, conversations, tools and resources to help students and working adults become successful leaders with influence and motivational staying power.
Our student who asked us about toxic leadership surmised that “. . . many senior leaders fail to notice toxic leaders because they tend to be results driven and in the eyes of executives and senior leaders the subordinate toxic leader is doing a ‘good job.’”
For the Good of the Company or the Good of the Individual?
I’d like to share a personal experience I had in 2000. I was invited to an open house for a new graduate certificate program in Emotional Intelligence. The facilitator presented a problem solving ice breaker on a toxic leadership situation. A pharmaceutical organization hired a scientific project manager who was known for her ability to secure research funding and develop cutting edge patents. Unfortunately, she lacked the necessary people skills and the turnover rate of her direct reports was extremely high. During the exit interviews, the former employees shared how the organization was responsible for creating a hostile work environment by allowing this individual to be a supervisor.
We were asked, “What would you do?” Given my background, I suggested that it was the organization’s responsibility to investigate the concern of the former employees in order to validate the complaints. If the results showed that the complaints were accurate, then the organization should consider putting the manager on a corrective counseling plan. Another participant in the audience agreed with me while the others were unsure. Both of us were human resource executives so we were thinking the same thing, “one bad apple can’t tarnish the reputation and integrity of the organization.” We were looking at the possibility of potential lawsuits as well as the mental health of the direct reports.
The facilitator smiled and shared how the senior leadership wanted to “save” the manager given the value that she added to the organization. She proceeded to share how this scenario was the basis of the program. The expected outcome was to graduate professionals who had the skill set to mentor employees such as the scientific project manager and others at higher levels of leadership. In broader business contexts, some organizations will hire individuals to take them to the next level. In order to go to the top, these individuals will utilize the skills and tools that have made them successful. Sadly, sometimes, soft skills training and development are not a part of the arsenal provided or emphasized.
Senior leaders know about the toxic leaders. They are the “elephants in the room” – the topic that you don’t discuss openly. At some level, the organization’s culture supports a position of “for the greater good, it’s not a perfect world.” In this particular scenario, the decision was made to require the manager to receive mentoring in her deficient areas while she made a name for the company.
I left the meeting enlightened. The new question swirling in my head was “how do you protect the employee at an organization where coaching or emphasis on soft skills development is not a service provided to toxic and other leaders in need of certain skills development?” I still have the same response today – each person needs to determine what his/her “greater good” formula is. That is, at what point does an environment become unbearable and adversely impact your mental well-being? It’s a question that should be asked at intervals over time. As life and work circumstances change, so too does your “greater good” formula.
Start With the Interview
The economy is still soft and many are unemployed. However, one should still seek out those jobs that would be a perfect fit. Although it varies by state, most employers are “at-will” (i.e., absent an employment contract or certain statuses based on protected classes, etc., a company may release an employee and an employee may leave his or her position at any time.) Candidates should be prepared to interview the company as well to make sure it is a good fit. Although it is difficult to know the extent of toxicity present in any given organization, you can ask questions during the interview process about leadership styles, scenarios, programs, projects, and philosophies that may give you a sense of what’s behind the curtain – especially for managers with whom you may have a direct reporting relationship.
In most cases, you will have the opportunity to interview with the hiring manager. What should you look for? It’s a good idea to prepare before the interview by not only researching the organization thoroughly, but also becoming familiar with the types of leadership styles you like (and don’t like). Develop a list of questions based on the information you find and document the hiring manager’s responses. Also, request a tour of the actual department in which you will be working. Observe the behavior of the leader as he/she walks through. How do direct reports and indirect departmental personnel react to this individual? Take notes and make the right decision for YOU!
Look for the Signs
Lipman-Blumen (2005) wrote a book on toxic leadership and an excerpt is shared on the internet (http://www.achievingstyles.com/articles/toxic_leadership_a_conceptual_framework.pdf). What stood out to me was the introduction of choices that you have if you find yourself in a toxic situation. Although she provides some helpful ideas on assisting organizations from preventing toxic leadership in the organization, those suggestions don’t help if the organization supports a toxic leader. However, I have to commend her on suggesting a 360 degree feedback evaluation program. I have seen where this type of process has been an early alert for potential problems.
In closing, I also found a “checklist” of toxic leadership traits. Mehta (2011) and I both believe that the toxic leader is a charmer in the beginning. As you observe the individual’s behavior, determine whether they possess one or more of the following characteristics:
- Incompetent – they don’t know how to do their job.
- Narcissist – most of their time is spent on themselves.
- Rigid – they tend to be stubborn and won’t accept someone else’s ideas.
- Insensitive – they have no regard for the well-being of others.
- Arrogant – they consider themselves superior to others.
- Coward – they lack the courage to face tough situations; someone else has to take the heat.
- Ambitious – many are overly ambitious with an unhealthy appetite for success.
- Domineering – autocratic.
- Evil – many will abuse power.
Sloan Wilson, Dan. (2014, Jan. 10). Toxic Leaders and the Social Environments That Breed Them. Retrieved on February 14, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/darwinatwork/2014/01/10/toxic-leaders-and-the-social-environments-that-breed-them.
Lipman-Blumen, J. (2005). The allure of toxic leaders: Why we follow destructive bosses and corrupt politicians and how we can survive them. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mehta, Z. (2011, July 29). Characteristics of a toxic leader. Retrieved on February 1, 2014, http://www.buzzle.com/articles/characteristics-of-a-toxic-leader.html.
About Dr. Marie Harper
Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University System. Dr. Harper has enjoyed over 25 years working in both the corporate and higher education industries. Her first career was in human resources and organizational development. She found her way to higher education in an effort to prepare future leaders with managing global and diverse workforces.
Dr. Harper’s areas of expertise include organizational, development and management, human resources, accreditation, non-profit governance, and instructional design. She has over 10 years of experience chairing and participating in accreditation site visits for Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP). She serves on the Board of Trustees of Education Works and the Board of Directors for Delaware End of Life Coalition. Dr. Harper earned her doctorate degree in Business from Capella University, her master’s degree in instructional Systems from Pennsylvania State University and bachelor degree in Psychology from Wellesley College.