5 Tips for Dealing with a Toxic Leader

Posted on February 19, 2014.

Several years ago, I invited Dr. George Reed, an expert on Toxic Leadership to one of my leadership meetings. Not surprisingly, when he asked the group how many people had worked for a toxic leader, at least half the room raised their hand, including me.Dr. Reed defines toxic leadership as:

·      “An apparent lack of concern for the well-being of subordinates.”

·      “A personality or interpersonal technique that negatively affects organizational climate.”

·      “A conviction by subordinates that the leader is motivated primarily by self-interest.”

Certainly, any real bullying type behavior would fall into this definition, but as you can see, real detrimental leadership can encompass much more than hard line bullying, And while most of the literature around toxic leadership comes from the military, based on the hand raising at my team meeting, it’s clearly present in corporate America.  So what can you be done to rid ourselves of this cancer?

1.    Start with selecting the right people. Keep in mind that no matter what position you may be hiring for today, many people will have the potential to manage or lead others. So start by weeding out people with abrasive personalities. Make sure you create the kind of situational interview questions that provide insight into future behavior.  You won’t be 100% accurate, but it’s a start.

2.    Reward contributing behavior/eliminate detrimental behavior.  Consistently sending a message about what will and will not be tolerated helps create a culture where toxic leadership cannot survive. Be prepared to fire even your better producers if he or she exhibits this type of behavior. When toxic leaders feel they are safe from retribution, they thrive.

3.    Adopt and reinforce a code of ethics. You don’t; need a 300-page personnel manual to clearly communicate acceptable behavior.  Create a bullet point list, one page long, and include language that makes it clear what won’t be tolerated. Post it on your intranet so that it’s viewed regularly. Don’t have an intranet? Make it part of whatever appraisal system you use so that every employee sees it and signsit annually.

4.    Create a mechanism for reporting the behavior. Going over the head of a toxic boss is almost never an option.  Instead, build out either internally or through a third party, a phone line that can receive and investigate complaints. If you already have an Employee Assistance Program, make sure it includes the ability to receive these kinds of calls. 

5.    Implement periodic 360 feedback.  Give folks the opportunity to provide feedback to their boss, anonymously. Of course the key here is that you actually do something with the results.  With my former employer, I received 360 feedback every 2 years, as did my peers.  And yet, I know of several people that could not possibly have faired well in the process that are still managing and leading teams today.  What’s the point in  implementing a 360 program if you do nothing with it?

Toxic leadership can have both a physical and psychological affect on the people being managed.  If you either witness the behavior or have fallen prey to it, don’t turn a blind eye. Try to be part of the solution.