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  • Writer's pictureEdwin and George

How to deal with toxic leaders. A short exercise

EGM On A Mission: Let’s Build Better Companies

‘The pandemic has made people wonder whether companies need a different kind of leadership to deal with the ‘new normal.’ A question we might not be asking if there wasn’t a leadership crisis to begin with.’ (1)

Companies, trying to develop leaders – spending $370 billion annually on leadership training. (2)

Yet research shows that 30% of leaders are toxic. (3)

They will:

  • set you up to fail

  • say one thing and do another

  • ‘blow with the wind’ - change decisions and take the easy way out

  • do things and deny they ever happened

  • isolate you and tell you only what they want you to know

  • micro-manage

  • convince you that you’re the problem.

Hi George,

We missed you at the leadership meeting. Grace (George’s manager) shared an excellent proposal. She said you weren’t available to present. Look forward to connecting soon.

Regards, CEO

  • In George’s last one-on-one, Grace said enthusiastically that, of course, he should present the proposal he’d worked on for weeks

  • George double-checked his inbox for updates and the meeting invite. Grace never responded

  • Grace went on to present the proposal without George

  • Excluding George from meetings, keeping him off the list for company leadership programs, then telling him he was on track for promotion — all while Grace spoke negatively about his performance to her peers — all red flags in the relationship.

The toxic leadership continued and intensified until the day George resigned. (4)

People have had time to think about what’s important. (5)

Allowing toxic leaders to thrive drives your people away. They’ll choose to work for companies that value their contribution – and respect them as an individual.

Here’s something worth remembering when you next see toxic leadership behaviour:

Company culture is defined by the worst behaviours that are tolerated. When we choose not to act if we see bad behaviours, they become normalized as ‘part of the culture’ and whenever they go unchecked (or even rewarded) the company culture re-sets to the new lower standard.’ (6)

This is serious stuff.

Your company will never flourish with a culture of toxic leadership – and your job will become harder and harder.

A Short Exercise

Toxic leaders do damage because others turn a blind eye – or they’re supported by people around them.

If you’re frustrated working with a toxic leader, ask who is shoring up their power?

Who are the main suspects in your company?

  1. The Innocent - new to the company – hasn’t been around long enough to notice patterns of bad behaviour. They believe the toxic leaders’ complaints about other colleagues and often wind up spreading the false stories – it doesn’t occur to them that such a charming person could be using them

  2. The Worshipper - often a former direct report of the toxic leader. They believe they owe them something for their career success - their sense of duty makes it hard for them to see their ‘hero’ in a negative light

  3. The Idealist - sees the bad behavior for what it is and may even suffer personally. However, their positive worldview keeps them from confronting their colleague. They believe the toxic leader can change - but are too anxious for the culture to be ‘civil’ to do anything

  4. The Wimp - angered by the toxic leaders’ actions – could be a more senior manager - tells everyone they’ll confront the bully. If the discussion takes place, however, they drop all resistance. Their desire for self-preservation is understandable, but when powerful people wimp out of doing what’s right, they leave their more vulnerable allies disillusioned

  5. The Ostrich – can’t stand open conflict, difficult situations, or anything that disturbs their placid existence. They would rather bury their head in the sand than take a stand. Anyone trying to tackle the problem is bound to feel alone in the face of their silence

  6. The Opportunist - feels they can gain something from the toxic leaders’ influence so they will keep their head down - they say what the toxic leader wants to hear for their own career purposes

  7. The Partner in Crime - carries out the toxic leaders’ dirty work. They attack the detractors, spread vicious lies about other colleagues - boosting the toxic leaders’ reputation every chance they get – for these reasons, the Partner in Crime considers anyone who criticizes the toxic leader a personal enemy, and they will do whatever they can to stymie the critic’s efforts towards truth and fairness. (7)

Now, take action:

So, if you’re not one of these characters – and have a desire to tackle toxic leadership in your company - here are our top tips:

  • Open your eyes. Be on the lookout for signs of a toxic leader – for example, high performers becoming quiet and disinterested. Growing absenteeism in a team. Is their evidence of favouritism? Are individuals excluded from projects or meetings? Does a leader gossip or joke about individuals? Do they create a negative narrative about the performance of individuals in their team and share this with peers or superiors?

  • Listen and act. Believe employees when they share what’s happening - when an employee has the courage to come forward, leaders must start by actively listening and believing them. The employee may be coming to you because they feel safe. They may have exhausted all other options Do not minimize, deny, or invalidate what they tell you. Ask how you can support moving forward.

  • Call it out. Intervene in the moments that matter - If you see that a manager has excluded one of their team from a meeting, make sure to invite them and be clear that you extended the invitation. If a manager is creating a negative narrative of an employee’s performance in talent planning sessions, speak up in the moment and ask them for evidence-based examples. Enlist the help of others who have examples of their strong performance. Challenge the toxic behaviours.

  • Deal with it. Isolate the manager who is behaving in a toxic way – it has to be done – and it’s for everyone’s benefit. Enlist the help of human resources and have them review the manager’s team’s attrition rates and exit interview data. Document evidence. Support employees who share experiences with HR, including providing your own documentation. If you are a senior leader, put in place a performance improvement plan. Ultimately, use restructuring as an opportunity to isolate the toxic leader. In parallel, work with human resources to develop an exit plan if improvements aren’t evident. (8)

Final thoughts:

Research finds that 58% of employees would take a pay cut if it meant working with a great boss. (9).

Employees don’t leave companies, they leave bad bosses. According to Gallup, one in two employees have left a company to get away from their manager. Most of us are ready to share a story of a bad boss we once had. (10)

The number of toxic leaders and the resultant consequences cannot be ignored- and leadership training alone won’t solve the problem- no matter how many billions are spent on it.

  1. EGM leadership charter, now over to you, EGM blog

  2. Training, the size of the training industry, 29 March 2021

  3. How toxic leaders destroy people as well as organisations, The Conversation, 24 January 2016. Also, Harvard Business Review, 16 September 2021

  4. See, How to intervene when a manager is gaslighting their employees, Mita Mallik, Harvard Business Review, 16 September 2021

  5. Leaders, time to re-boot, EGM blog

  6. The promise of giants, how you can fill the leadership void, John Amaechi

  7. Are you a toxic enabler,, 16 September 2021

  8. How to intervene when a manager is gaslighting their employees, Mita Mallik, Harvard Business Review, 16 September 2021

  9. Your best employees are leaving but is it personal?, 28 August, 201

  10. The number one employee benefit that no one's talking about,

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