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The Rise of Toxic Leaders And What We Can Do About It

Ray Williams
Ray Williams

Toxic leaders are on the rise in our organizations. Effective strategies need to be put in place to fix the problem. Here's what to do about

We are witnessing the rise of toxic leaders and workplaces.

While people say they want positive and caring leaders, we tend to choose or follow a very different kind of leader.

We hire and promote the psychopaths, the narcissists, the bullies and the autocrats dedicated to self-interest.

Their long-term impact can damage and even destroy organizations (and even countries).

Many people easily forgive these toxic leaders and the harm they cause because they measure their success solely in financial terms or because they bring charismatic entertainment value to the organization.

Toxic Workplaces Can Be Characterized as Follows

  • All sticks and no carrots. Management focuses solely on what employees are doing wrong or correcting problems and rarely gives positive feedback for what is going right. The best performers receive some carrots and the rest get sticks.

  • Bullies rule the roost. Management either directly bullies employees or tolerates it when it occurs among employees.

  • Losing the human touch. People are considered to be objects or expenses rather than assets, and there is little concern for their happiness and/or well-being. Leaders lack compassion and empathy for employees.

Toxic leadership is a growing and costly phenomenon. Theo Veldsman of the University of Johannesburg recently published a study on the growth and impact of toxic leadership on organizations.

He contends that, “There is a growing incidence of toxic leadership in organizations across the world.”

Veldsman says that anecdotal and research evidence shows that one out of every five leaders is toxic, and he argues that his research shows it is closer to three out of every 10 leaders.

According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35 percent of the American workforce (or 53.5 million people) has directly experienced bullying, or “repeated mistreatment by one or more employees that takes the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation or sabotage of work performance”, while an additional 15 percent said they have witnessed bullying at work.

Approximately 72 percent of those bullies are bosses.

Jean Lipman-Blumen, author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders, says that a toxic leader can be characterized by the following behaviors:

  • Undermines the dignity, self-worth and efficacy of others.
  • Is a narcissist, bully and/or psychopath.
  • Leaves their followers and the organization worse off than when they found it.
  • Consciously feeds their followers illusions and fantasy about a secret plan or mystical vision.
  • Plays to the basest fears and needs of the followers.
  • Threatens or punishes those who fail to comply with the leader or question the leader’s actions.
  • Lies and is deceitful.
  • Must win at all costs.
  • Charms, cultivates and manipulates followers.
  • Blames others for their mistakes or failures and frequently criticizes others.
  • Constantly seeks and needs praise.
  • Has a sense of entitlement and believes they are “special”.
  • Is utilitarian in the extreme—“the ends justify any means”.
  • Lacks empathy and compassion for others.
  • Is super-sensitive to criticism and will seek vengeance against those who give it.
  • Often exhibits mood swings and temper tantrums.
  • Makes many promises that never happen.
  • Takes credit for others’ work.

Toxic leaders sap the strength of their organizations. Their demand for loyalty causes employees to fear whether they are doing something the leader will deem to be wrong.

In this demoralizing and dehumanizing atmosphere, the toxic leader may drive the organization into paralysis or worse.

Toxic leaders are often extreme narcissists. Tomas Chamorrow-Premuzic has pondered the question of “Why We Love Narcissists.”

He argues that narcissists, however productive some may be, “have parasitic effects on society.”

He says, “When in charge of companies, they commit fraud, demoralize employees and devalue stock. When in charge of countries they increase poverty, violence and death rates.”

Alan Goldman, author of the books Destructive Leaders and Dysfunctional Organizations and Transforming Toxic Leaders, contends that, “Very bad behavior at the top of the organizational hierarchy is typically guarded and reinforced like the gold reserves at Fort Knox.”

A Coaches Challenge

In my last two decades as an executive coach, working mostly with senior executives and CEOs in both private and public organizations, I’ve seen a disproportionate share of toxic leaders who continue to do harm to their employees and their organizations, despite all our knowledge about what constitutes good leadership, particularly with reference to emotional intelligence, humility and compassion.

Working with toxic leaders and those who work with them presents a real challenge to coaches, one that raises the bar for success.

Here are some ways we can either avoid or deal with toxic leaders:

  1. Boards/directors, recruiters and those responsible for hiring senior executives, and particularly CEOs, need to embrace the research on what constitutes good leadership. Psychometric and clinical psychological assessments of leadership candidates should be part of the recruitment and interview process to flag the extreme narcissists, psychopaths and borderline personalities.
  2. A longer probationary period (minimum of one year) needs to be in place for new hires. This will allow time for the honeymoon period to end and for charismatic and manipulative personalities to begin to show their true colors.
  3. The personal review process for senior leaders needs to be implemented by outside third parties, rather than Boards of Directors or HR departments, some of whom might have a vested interest in a positive outcome because they were involved in the initial selection process.
  4. A whistleblower protection system needs to be instituted so that employees who have become victims of toxic leaders, or who have witnessed their destructive behavior, can feel protected when coming forward with information.
  5. Every new senior executive should be assigned, or required to have, an executive coach who has the capacity to report to the executive’s superior or the board.

The prevalence of toxic leaders in our political, business and social organizations has become a serious problem, one that has contributed to the low-confidence level people have in leadership.

Action needs to be taken now before more people and organizations are damaged.

Image Credit: Deagreez / Getty Images
Ray Williams
Ray Williams Member
Ray Williams, Master Certified Coach, is widely regarded as one of Canada’s top executive coaches. He brings over 35 years experience to his clients as a CEO, and senior HR executive and professional speaker. Ray is the recipient of the Master Educator Award from the American Society of Education Executives, and is also past President of the International Coach Federation and Governor of the National Staff Development Council in the U.S. He has clients in Fortune 500 companies, Best Managed Companies in Canada and small to medium sized businesses and non-profit organizations throughout the world in the areas of leadership, workplace culture, team development and peak performance. He has been very active in such organizations as the Vancouver Board of Trade, having served as a Director and Vice-Chair. Ray has written for or been interviewed by The Washington Post, Forbes, USA Today, NBC News, The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, MacLean’s, The Financial Post, Fast Company and Psychology Today, Salon, and dozens of other and other national and international publications having published more than 300 articles. He is author of a new best selling book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Navigate Chaotic Workplaces. He has also written a book on educational leadership, The Leadership Edge, a personal growth book, Breaking Bad Habits, and was contributing author to Systemic Change, and the Best Seller, Ready, Aim, Influence. He has also written a novel and screenplay entitled Dragon Tamer.