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How to spot a toxic leader

Allegations of toxic leadership are never far from the headlines. Whether it’s politicians bullying colleagues or senior corporate executives creating a negative culture, no organisation is immune from such behaviour.

Toxic leaders have the potential to drain or debilitate their teams and stop their people from performing at their best. Left unchecked, their behaviour can have a disastrous impact on the organisation.

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But, while some of the scandals we’ve seen in the media have come from staff complaints or whistleblowing, this isn’t always the case.

So, how can HR directors and managers spot toxic leaders and what should they do if they’ve identified one?

Spotting a toxic leader

Toxic leaders micro-manage transactional details. Often, nothing is ‘good enough’. Their behaviour stifles passion, innovation and energy. It breeds compliance rather than commitment.

However, there are times when this can be difficult to spot. Perhaps they are not outwardly aggressive or dictatorial. People may not be obviously unhappy.

In these cases, there are four things of which to be aware.

First, is the organisation or team making bad decisions? Toxic leadership creates a false world of isolation where bad decisions get made. Team members become less open and honest because they know the leader will ignore their contribution.

Information may get withheld because there’s a concern that the leader will shoot the messenger. Poor judgements get made because the leader does not have the best information. They may impede governance or due diligence, so their bad decisions go unchallenged.

Second, is there evidence of short-termism? Toxic leadership can create a narrow, short-term focus. The leader is focused on driving results from the team, sometimes to the detriment of other functions in the business.

Such behaviour is sometimes the case among functional leaders, who are competing with their peers for budget and resources. Sometimes their goal is to get the next position, not to build a performance culture. As such, they focus on short-term returns, instead of long-term performance.

Third, are other team members starting to model the bad behaviour? If an organisation or team has a toxic leader, there is a danger that their behaviour can be a measure of success.

Line managers further down can start to replicate the negative example set by the toxic boss. Poisonous, detrimental behaviour then starts to infect leaders at all levels.

Fourth, are good people leaving? Research shows that talented people leave if they don’t feel connected to their employer’s mission, they are not adding value, or they are no longer growing.

A toxic leader is more likely to make their people feel less connected to the purpose of the business or feel valued. Those people won’t grow because the leader will be micro-managing them. Talented people jump ship.

Tackling toxic behaviour

If a leader’s behaviour is toxic, HR can act as the catalyst for change. HR executives are often in a unique position to intervene, but they’ll need the courage and the will to address the situation.

If the leader and organisation values HR, the HRD could discuss the toxic leader’s behaviour with them. They can ‘hold up a mirror’ to reveal their behaviour.

Here, HR executives should avoid accusatory language. Instead, HR executives should explore the outcomes the leader wants to achieve and the impact that has on their team.

They should help the leader play through alternatives to their approach and how those alternatives could result in greater success for both the outcome they want to achieve and the engagement and wellbeing of their team.

Overall, they should help the leader to see the impact of their behaviour – and to understand how changing their behaviour will help others to succeed.

If this isn’t possible, HR’s role could be to initiate feedback or coaching for the toxic leader. In this case, the HR executive or coach is looking to instil four critical assertions in the toxic leader. These are: losing ego, valuing others, sharing passion and building trust.

By focusing on these four assertions, HR executives can ensure that the toxic leader instead focuses on building a high-trust culture, which dispels toxicity. Instead of poor-performing teams, organisations gain innovative, creative and loyal people.

By dispelling such toxicity, leaders and organisations benefit from a more positive culture, increased retention, and ultimately enhanced productivity.

By Kevin Johnson, CEO, OnTrack International