Workplace morale toxic leaders

Three things toxic leaders do that you won’t notice until it’s too late

The long term effects of toxic leadership can cause a huge plummet in your workplace morale and do severe damage to your company over time.

Toxic leaders are more common in the workplace than we think, and the true effects of their leadership style doesn’t always become clear until months or years after the initial warning signs.

To make it totally clear what a toxic leader is: A manager with a self-centred attitude to their leadership, putting their personal advancement and reward first. They use coercion, bullying, intimidation and deception at the expense of their team to reach short-term goals.

Unfortunately, toxic leadership is likely to be rife. According to a recent survey of 1,000 university educated employees one in three managers has been described as highly toxic and one in four mildly toxic. In the USA alone toxic leadership is estimated to cost over $23 billion a year through high staff turnover, employee exhaustion and the cost of lawsuits against abusive leaders and their employers.

Spotting them early is vital, but some of the warning signs can be deceptive at first: 

  • Immediate success: The irony of toxic management is it tends to work very well in the short term. In environments where hitting targets is do-or-die, toxic management produces departments which are more likely to produce the necessary results.
  • High initial engagement: Toxic leadership creates a form of synthetic engagement where employees appear to be very engaged with their work, but are only acting out of fear of punishment and retribution for failing to meet targets.
  • Lower employee turnover: Another cruel joke of the toxic leader is that they keep employees in a single job for longer than average. Employees find it harder to generate escape velocity from toxic departments and workers who can survive in an unhealthy environment are more likely to be dedicated enough to withstand abuse while other employees leave.

As you can see some of these might be hard to spot at first, and might not be seen immediately as a warning sign. Other red flags are much easier to spot:

  • Leaders taking credit: Because of the self-centred nature of toxic leaders, it’s likely they’ll take credit for their department’s success and diminish the efforts of their team relative to their leadership.
  • Exhausted employees: Workers in a department managed by a toxic leader are far more likely to report a very poor work/life balance and get burned out in their roles. Despite high engagement reports, as many as 73% of employees working for a toxic leader feel they’re likely to leave their company in the next year.
  • Discrimination claims: While we’re sure your company takes any claim of discrimination seriously, 81% of employees under a toxic leader felt they had been the victim of some form of discrimination and many felt they couldn’t pursue a complaint.

The result of a toxic leader is an in-house cold war. Cross-departmental efforts die on the vine as they risk sharing credit or exposing “weakness” to other managers. Employees are overworked and under-recognised for their achievements while their manager hoovers up credit and assigns blame.

Workplace morale plummets and employees eventually disengage and plan to leave.

If your organisation relies on collaboration and long-term planning, it’s an unacceptable outcome and something which has to be addressed before you’re caught in a vicious loop of being unable to attract and keep great employees.

Risk Factors:

Some workplaces are inherently more likely to suffer toxic leadership. Companies with a high-stakes work environment and win-or-die performance targets are at risk for obvious reasons but professional services, goods production, engineering and government departments are also far more likely to contain toxic leaders than other industries.

Workplaces with overwhelmingly male workforces are also at risk. While men are only slightly more likely to be toxic leaders than women, the more a business is populated by men the more likely it is to have toxic leadership.

Stop the Rot:

The solution to a non-toxic work environment is two-fold. Firstly, the company has to dedicate themselves to creating a culture where employee well-being and healthy management is prioritised, and secondly existing managers need to make sure their leadership is in line with those goals.

Address the stress: Workplace stress is inevitable, and not inherently unhealthy, but is the stress coming from the demands of the job or the style of management? Additionally, are managers under so much stress to deliver on their own projects they’ll tolerate toxic behaviour from other leaders for their own benefit?

Provide support: Make it clear to managers what kind of work environment you’re trying to achieve, and ensure pathways for employees to safely give their feedback on their workplace and managers. Many employees in toxic workplaces feel they have no voice to challenge the behaviour of a manager or their peers.

Reinforce positive behaviour: Reward leaders for demonstrating they’ll provide growth over time alongside employee wellbeing instead of a sharp focus on short term goals.

Consider third party support: Employees are more likely to be forthcoming about their managers when talking to third parties, especially when discussing senior leadership in a company.