Is toxicity polluting your organization?


Toxic leadership undermines success, so recognize and eradicate it

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It is thought that the term ‘toxic leadership’ was coined by author Marcia Whicker, in 1996, when she contrasted the leaders she termed ‘toxic’ with ‘trustworthy’ and ‘transitional’ leaders. Since then, the term has been used increasingly to describe a wide range of poor leadership practice in the commercial, not-for-profit and political spheres.

Toxic leadership is bad for organizations. Studies have linked it with higher staff turnover, lower productivity, decreased job satisfaction, reduced employee morale and motivation, diminished organizational commitment and a much lower likelihood of individuals going above or beyond the demands of their contract. The impact of toxic leadership on followers often comes to light almost immediately: employees make complaints, resignations are proffered, absence due to stress becomes common. In the worst cases, employees adapt their behaviour to fit in with the toxic leader’s regime, which results in an expansion of the toxicity. So how do we ensure it doesn’t happen?

One solution has been to identify the personality traits of a toxic leader. Such an approach has the limitations of any trait-based approach to understanding leadership, but is useful in helping to reveal a number of recurrent indicators. Traits of the toxic leader include narcissism, arrogance, amorality, recklessness, insensitivity, a lack of integrity and cowardice. But it is simplistic to assume we can produce a checklist of toxic traits, identify potentially toxic leaders at interview and simply not employ them.

With a wide range of behaviours and personalities labelled ‘toxic’, a single definition for toxic leadership eludes us. The term is associated with leadership styles that range from abusive, tyrannical and destructive to laissez-faire. Destructive behaviours include deception, undermining, intimidating, creating scapegoats and pursuit of personal agendas. Yet although many leaders resort to such styles or behaviours on occasion, this alone does not make those leaders toxic.

Another way to understand toxic leadership is to examine the detrimental effects on followers – with research indicating a negative effect on wellbeing and self-esteem. It is therefore in everyone’s interest to recognize when such practices are occurring –and stop them. Toxic leadership is only able to flourish when an organizational climate lets it, when followers are prevented from challenging the behaviour or, even more damagingly, begin to imitate it. So much behaviour in life, and at work, is learned through observation and imitation.

When toxic leaders exhibit abusive and unscrupulous behaviour, unpredictability and inconsistency, their actions are observed by members of their teams – and a climate emerges where such toxicity is replicated. Cultures that allow leaders to put selfinterest above the needs of their teams and organizations, to behave without integrity and consistency in their treatment of the people with whom they work, invite in toxic practices. So how we can ensure we avoid toxic leadership practices? A starting point is to answer the following questions.

  • Are our decisions honest, transparent and in the best interests of the organization?
  • Are we consistent, respectful and fair in our dealings with all colleagues?
  • Do we challenge actions that deviate from these standards?

Answer yes to all three, and your organization might be in the clear. If any of the answers is “no”, toxicity could be lurking within it already, or on its way.


Kate Cooper is head of applied research and policy at the Institute of Leadership & Management