How to Identify Toxic Leaders

Last week I brought up the complex issue of toxic leadership. But how can you tell if your organization has toxic leaders? Unfortunately, it is often the case that people don’t speak up until it’s too late.

Toxic leaders have been responsible for numerous horrific business failures in the last few decades: Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling at Enron, Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco International and Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom. While many organizations have toxic leaders, they may manage to survive for years before problems get out of hand, which is why it’s particularly difficult for employees or colleagues to deal with the problem effectively.

There is no precise definition of toxic behavior. Most people recognize it as displays of arrogance, selfishness, manipulation, bullying, callousness and control. Toxic bosses may be smooth and polished with people they need, but disrespectful and harsh with subordinates, for example.

There is some pertinent information about toxic leadership in Jean Lipman-Blumen’s book The Allure of Toxic Leaders (Oxford University Press, 2004). Of interest is her chapter on why so many of us as followers allow toxicity to fester.

Many toxic bosses achieve spectacular results and are heralded in the press, so their transgressions are forgiven or overlooked. They use their ability to manipulate people to further their own careers, no matter the cost to the organization or its people.

In the short term, they act like heroes and create loyal followers who produce great results. In the long term, they create enemies, bend rules, and push the limits of ethics and relationships.

When business results are positive, toxic behaviors may go unchecked. But when the bottom line takes a dip, CEOs lose their patience — but it’s often much more difficult to make corrections at that point.

Resisting External Help

Toxicity, like truffles, grows best in the dark.” Jean Lipman-Blumen

Coaches and consultants know firsthand that corporate toxicity rarely has a single cause, leader or culprit. Attempts to single out destructive leaders won’t fix all problems. Multiple levels of the organization should be scrutinized.

CEOs must be willing to take a participatory approach to healing at all levels. Otherwise, they risk hiring and promoting more toxic leaders in the future. Unfortunately, companies often call in external experts only after reluctantly acknowledging the scope of their problems.

Even when they do ask for help, many CEOs have already chosen a culprit, and they try to dictate their agenda to the outside consultant. When entrenched in defensive and protective behaviors, leaders often resist attempts to change established patterns of negative organizational behavior.

Experienced coaches and consultants anticipate and push through this resistance. We are usually adept at evaluating toxic dynamics and preparing an honest, accurate evaluation.

Even the most highly productive leaders have some toxic qualities that contribute to their success. The earlier an organization retains external experts, the easier it will be to resolve unhealthy dynamics when they arise.

It’s important that you don’t let toxicity grow in your workplace; the sooner you seek outside help, the easier it will be to shift dysfunctional leadership. If you’d like to get help, contact me here and let’s talk.

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