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Hate your boss but love your job: The paradox of highly toxic leadership

Life Meets Work (LMW) works with a wide range of organizations looking to enhance their organizational culture and employee engagement. One company we worked with was committed to building a more collaborative and innovative environment but couldn’t get its employees to step outside of their departmental silos and push the organization forward. Simultaneously, many new employees were turning over quickly while more tenured ones seemed withdrawn and disconnected from each other and the organization.

During the project, employees and senior leaders alike proved very engaged with their jobs and eager to collaborate. Instead of being disengaged, they explained their behavior as a direct response to a small number of toxic leaders. These leaders tightly controlled the flow of information, micro-managed employee tasks, stole credit for successes while freely distributing blame for setbacks, and subtly undermined the efforts of their peers.

The other leaders were at a loss for how to confront the problem without seeming petty or wasting resources they needed to do their jobs. So, they focused on protecting their own units leaving the organizational culture undefended, creating the departmental silos, turnover and “engagement” issues we had been brought in to address.

The data from our most recent study on leadership suggests that this dynamic may be more normal than one might expect. We found that toxic leadership appears to be common, with 56% of respondents indicating that their immediate managers were mildly (32%) or highly toxic (24%). As expected, we saw that employees had higher stress, more work-life conflict, and intentions to leave as leader toxicity increased. We also found that more respondents with highly toxic leaders (81%) than non-toxic leaders (8%) suspected their leaders of discriminating against them. Clearly, toxic leaders create problems for their employees and risks for their organizations.

Yet, engagement was highest among those with highly toxic leaders. More than half (53%) of employees with highly toxic leaders were highly engaged compared with about a third of those with nontoxic leaders (35%). We also found that respondents worked for highly toxic leaders longer, an average of seven years compared with five years for non-toxic leaders.

Is being a toxic leader the secret to employee engagement? Unlikely, especially given the high new hire turnover we saw our client managing. Instead, it is more likely that toxic leaders become surrounded by such individuals via a perverse process of attrition. New employees with less engagement and reasonable job prospects will likely leave when confronted with a leader’s toxic aspects. Employees who are highly engaged with their work (because it is interesting or meaningful) might linger, either not recognizing the leader’s behavior as inappropriate or hoping things will change. If they linger too long, they may find themselves in professional quicksand as they focus their energy on work while the exhaustion of higher stress and work-life conflict blunts their ability to actively seek alternative employment.

Organizations may be tempted to let sleeping dogs lie and allow toxic leaders to continue without interference. If those leaders are effective and employees are lingering what’s the problem? There are several:

  • Wasted recruitment dollars when new hires flee the toxic leader,
  • Legal fees from employees who pursue discrimination lawsuits,
  • Loss of creativity and collaboration, and
  • Higher costs in health and wellbeing benefits and absenteeism due to higher levels of work-life conflict and stress.

It is estimated that the productivity, turnover, and legal issues caused by abusive leadership cost U.S. employers $23.8 billion per year.* Toxic leadership is far too costly to ignore. Dealing with toxic leaders requires a collective effort from the entire organization to create an environment where toxic leaders are unable to thrive. Some of the big steps that organizations can take include:

1. Look to a variety of employee metrics to identify potentially toxic leaders.

Don’t just rely on engagement surveys but consider other measurements, such as turnover patterns. For example, toxic leaders should have a lot of trouble keeping new employees but be surrounded by a cadre of long-tenured employees. They may also be providing higher than average raises to retain employees who might otherwise flee their toxic environments. Organizational climate surveys, which ask about the presence of negative topics, like toxic leadership, stress and work-life conflict, are essential to getting a full picture of the organization.

2. Create opportunities for employees to speak anonymously about what is happening in the organization and consider the history of complaints.

While a single accusation may be the result of one disgruntled employee, a string of similar complaints over time should trigger a new investigation, even if each individual incident has been laid to rest. Ideally, use a third party to assess leaders and organizational culture because internal agents may be motivated to avoid conflict with toxic leaders.

3. Improve employee development and succession planning.

Toxic leaders are hard to deal with because they tend to micro-manage their teams, denying them opportunities to build reputations as potential leadership candidates. Organizations that help employees to develop their leadership skills independently of their manager’s support will have a deeper bench to draw from should they decide to fire a toxic leader.

4. Develop explicit standards for leader conduct and encourage leaders to enforce those norms with each other.

Toxic leadership behaviors can become normalized if left unchallenged. Members of the leadership team need to be explicit with one another about what behaviors are inappropriate and show the emotional courage to challenge and support one another in enforcing those standards. One person pointing out toxic leadership may seem petty, but several speaking together will be more convincing.

5. Provide training on boundary setting and bystander intervention.

Dealing with toxic leaders requires different social skills and greater fortitude than managing regular conflicts between employees. Provide employees with training on how to identify their priorities for how they expect to be treated and how to hold those boundaries in a professional way. Knowing how to manage up is a valuable skill, even if there are no toxic leaders present. Similarly, helping people know how to speak up when they see something going wrong elsewhere in the company can only improve long-term results.

For our client, revealing to the non-toxic leaders that others shared their perspective began to move things forward. We facilitated conversations designed to encourage senior leaders to reinvest in the organizational culture and reengage with collective decision making. The next steps are up to them.

Toxic leadership is a very real and subtle problem. However, good leaders with the courage to collectively confront bad behavior will be able to craft cultures that encourage the best from everyone.

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*Tepper, B.J, Duffy, M.K., Henle, C.A., and Lambert, L.S. (2006). Procedural Injustice, Victim Precipitation, and Abusive Supervision. Personnel Psychology, 59(1), 101–123.

Join us for a 30-minute webinar to learn more.

Webinar: Detoxifying your Culture and Encouraging More Mindful Leadership
Date: Tuesday, June 20, 2017; 12:00pm – 12:30 pm ET / 11:00am – 11:30am CT