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5 habits of toxic leadership (and 5 ways leaders can avoid them)

A toxic boss yells at workers from inside his radioactive bubble.
A toxic boss yells at workers from inside his radioactive bubble.
(Photo: Adobe Photo Stock)

In a 2018 article, Gallup writer Ryan Pendell shared some frightening figures for business leaders. Public poll data showed that only a quarter of employees believed their leaders had a clear direction for their companies. A meager 15 percent felt leadership made them feel enthused for the future, 14 percent felt inspired to improve, and 12 percent felt their organizations onboarded well.

Even consensus proved worrisome: Nearly three-quarters of employees experience persistent burnout at work. Yikes!

“Business is moving faster than ever. The old ways of doing things aren’t working anymore,” Pendell writes. “And today’s executive leadership needs to be more connected — in a persistent, ‘always-on’ capacity — with the emotions, opinions and attitudes of their employees.”

While we disagree with the “always-on” sentiment—everyone needs to make time for themselves—Pendell is correct that leaders must be more connected. An out-of-touch leader inevitably becomes a toxic leader, and as their performance stagnates from a lack of fresh ideas and perspectives, they become a danger to their organizations as well as the health and wellbeing of their teams.

To bring their people back into the fold, leaders must learn to shed these toxic habits.

Toxic Habit #1: Never Touching the Ground

Some leaders try to lead from on high. They relay their directives and decrees to the employees below yet never bother to meet them where they work and live. When they do descend from their conference rooms, it’s with all the grace of an invading army.

Nancy Roberts calls this top-down approach “command and control” leadership, and it is the trademark of the out-of-touch CEO. The dangers of the command-and-control style are many, chief among them being that such leaders sever the connections that act as the conduits to new insights and knowledge. 

If people have no access to their leaders or don’t feel comfortable around them, then how are they supposed to open up, warn of potential dangers, or pitch innovative new ideas?  

Leaders should instead practice frontline leadership. They must spend time with their employees: Take them to coffee, work a day in their role, and lead as a member of the tribe. Only with their feet on the ground can leaders truly get a lay of the land and utilize their most valuable resource: their people.

Toxic Habit #2: Spinning Like a Moral Weather Vane

Leaders should know what they and their company stand for. If they spin whichever way the winds of profit and popularity blow, then they cannot be a value-centered leader. And only a value-centered leader can produce results for all the stakeholders invested in their company.

Why? Because if the team, the mission, and the community are not the center of the leader’s decision-making process, then they become expendable— bargaining chips to be cashed in or discarded as the opportunity arises.

Leaders need to be authentic to themselves, their goals, and their values. As Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, told us in an interview, that requires leaders to calibrate their inner moral compass to always point toward their True North. That way, they can maintain the course no matter which way the winds blow.

Toxic Habit #3: Holding Public Tribunals

Every leader has to correct for bad habits or poor performance, but toxic leaders view these opportunities the same way a king views a beheading: as a warning to others. They make the punishment harsh and public. They break the person down and use the fear of a similar verbal drubbing to keep others in line.

The problem with this approach—beyond its monarchal cruelty—is that it doesn’t enhance performance or inspire self-improvement. 

It actually has the opposite effect as psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow: “[R]ewards for improved performance work better than punishment of mistakes. […] This proposition is supported by much evidence from research on pigeons, rats, humans, and other animals.”

Trustworthy leaders build up a person by focusing on their strengths and rewarding their successes. When they do have to mete out criticism, they do so one-on-one behind closed doors, and they couch the criticism as an opportunity for growth and a means to reinforce those strengths.

Toxic Habit #4: Turning Promotions into a Death Match

For this one, we’re looking to the poster boys of toxic leadership: Enron. Jeffery Skilling’s social Darwinist approach to leadership cultivated a working environment that was kill-or-be-killed.

Consider the company’s Performance Review Committee. The committee’s system—dubbed the “rank-and-yank”—ranked employees on a one-to-five scale. Those at the top were considered superior stock, while those at the bottom had their careers effectively brought to slaughter. 

Not only was such a system ripe for abuse, politicking, and favoritism, it also kneecapped any chance for collaboration and cooperation within the company.

Leaders should instead foster trust and a sense of camaraderie. Rather than pitting colleagues against each other in a do-or-die bid for a promotion, leaders should spotlight and reward teamwork so that when one member of the team is celebrated, everyone feels like they won.

Toxic Habit #5: Asking People to Put the Job First

Employees are the lifeblood of any organization, but only a toxic leader asks employees to make work the essence of their lives. These are the leaders who demand in-office dinners, push employees to be “always on”, and actively break down the barriers between work and personal life.

Conversely, nurturing leaders understand that a livelihood and a life are distinct. Work may be an important part of life, but it’s not a substitute for life.

As Bill McDermott told us in an interview: “I always begin with the end in mind. What would you want them to say about you when you’re not around? I don’t think it’s that you always got in first and left last and missed everything that really mattered in life. […] So I truly believe the prioritization of family in business cannot be strongly stressed enough by any executive because the best executives are the ones that have always put family first.”

An Elixir for Toxic Leadership?

Ultimately, what ties these toxic leadership habits together is that toxic leaders lead metrics; value-centered leaders lead people. The skills necessary to cure these toxic habits all require leaders to develop empathy, compassion, intellectual humility, and the ability to energize and influence people by cultivating their self-worth. 

And if more leaders invest in that learning, maybe Gallups’s 2022 figures will not be so scary.

Stay in the know with lessons ‘For Business‘ from Big Think+. At Big Think+, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to create a curated library for career development and lifelong learning. Develop your leadership skills with video lessons such as:

  • Starting with Why: Build Trusting Teams, with Simon Sinek, Ethnographer and Author, Start with Why
  • Allow Your People to Bring Their Humanity to Work: What Leaders Can Do to Improve Employee Engagement, with Kathryn Minshew, CEO and Co-Founder, The Muse
  • Become an Enlightened Leader: How to Let Reality Be Your Organization’s Guide, with Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology, Harvard, and Author, Enlightenment Now
  • A Great Place to Work for All: Deciding to Lead in a Different Way, with Micahel C. Bush, CEO, Great Place to Work, and Author, A Great Place to Work for All
  • Developing High-Trust Organizations: Four Principles for Creating a Climate Where Trust Can Thrive, with Joel Peterson, Former Chairman, JetBlue Airways, and Author, The 10 Laws of Trust

Request a demo today!

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