The Rise of Toxic Leaders and What To Do About It

Photo by Charles Forerunner
Photo by Charles Forerunner
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The Challenge: Toxic and dysfunctional leaders can harm employee well being and the health of organizations.
The Science: Research studies show an increasing prevalence of toxic leaders in our organizations.
The Solution: Check out these 7 strategies to make the most of the situation.

We are witnessing the rise of toxic leaders and workplaces. Organizations often  hire and promote the psychopaths, the narcissists, the bullies and the autocrats dedicated to self-interest. Their long-term impact can damage and even destroy organizations (and even countries). Many people easily forgive these toxic leaders and the harm they cause because they measure their success solely in financial terms or because they bring charismatic, celebrity-like value to the organization.

This trend is clearly evident both in politics, as evidenced by the popular support a narcissist such as Donald Trump, but also the adulation of business leaders such as Steven Jobs and Larry Ellison.

Theo Veldsman of the University of Johannesburg recently published a study on the growth and impact of toxic leadership on organizations. He contends that “there is a growing incidence of toxic leadership in organizations across the world.” Veldsman says that anecdotal and research evidence shows that one out of every five leaders is toxic, and he argues that his research shows it is closer to three out of every ten leaders.

According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35 percent of the American workforce (or 53.5 million people) has directly experienced bullying—or  “repeated mistreatment by one or more employees that takes the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation or sabotage of work performance”—while an additional 15 percent said they have witnessed bullying at work. Approximately 72 percent of those bullies are bosses.

Other research on toxic leaders shows they share the following common characteristics. They:

  • Undermine the dignity, self-worth and efficacy of employees;
  • Leave their followers and the organization worse off than when they found it;
  • Threaten or punish those who fail to comply with the leader or question the leader’s actions;
  • Lies and are deceitful;
  • Blame others for their mistakes or failures and frequently criticize others;
  • Constantly seek and need praise;
  • Have a sense of entitlement and believe they are “special;”
  • Lack empathy and compassion for others;
  • Are super-sensitive to criticism and will seek vengeance against those who give it.

Toxic leaders’ demand for loyalty causes employees to fear whether they are doing something the leader will deem to be wrong. In this demoralizing and dehumanizing atmosphere, the toxic leader may drive the organization into paralysis or worse.

In my last two decades as an executive coach, working mostly with senior executives and CEOs in both private and public organizations, I’ve seen a disproportionate share of toxic leaders who continue to do harm to their employees and their organizations, despite all our knowledge about what constitutes good leadership, particularly with reference to emotional intelligence, humility and compassion. Working with toxic leaders and those who work with them presents a real challenge to coaches—one that raises the bar for success.

What Can Be Done?

Action can be taken to avoid bringing toxic leaders into organizations, or, if they already exist there, do something about them. Here’s some suggestions:

  1. Boards/directors, recruiters and those responsible for hiring senior executives, and particularly CEOs, need to embrace the research on what constitutes good leadership, with particular reference to integrity, compassion and humility.
  2. Psychometric and clinical psychological assessments of leadership candidates should be part of the recruitment and interview process to flag the extreme narcissists, psychopaths and borderline personalities.
  3. A longer probationary period (minimum of one year) needs to be in place for new hires. This will allow time for the honeymoon period to end and for charismatic and manipulative personalities to begin to show their true colors.
  4. The performance review process for senior leaders needs to be implemented by outside third parties, rather than Boards of Directors or HR departments, some of whom might have a vested interest in a positive outcome because they were involved in the initial selection process.
  5. A whistleblower protection system needs to be instituted so that employees who have become victims of toxic leaders, or who have witnessed their destructive behavior, can feel protected when coming forward with information.
  6. Every new senior executive should be assigned, or required to have, an executive coach who has the capacity to report to the executive’s superior or the Board of Directors.
  7. Incorporating a multi-bottom line culture where the long-term well being of employees, society and the environment are as important as short-term financial return to shareholders and senior leaders.

The prevalence of toxic leaders in our political, business and social organizations has become a serious problem, one that has contributed to the low-confidence level people have in leadership. Action needs to be taken now before more people and organizations are damaged.

This article originally appeared in Psychology Today.

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Ray Williams
Ray Williams is Owner and President of Ray Williams Associates, a company based in Vancouver, Canada, providing leadership and executive coaching and professional speaking services internationally. Ray has been a CEO, senior HR Executive, Management Consultant and Executive Coach for the past 30 years. His clients include those in the Fortune 500, Best Managed Companies in Canada, entrepreneurs and professionals. He has written books on leadership, personal growth and organizational change, and written for, or been interviewed by such media as NBC News, The Huffington Post, USA Today, The National Post, Entrepreneur, Forbes, The Financial Post, Psychology Today, and other international professional publications. He has served as the Vice-Chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade and President of the International Coach Federation, Vancouver.
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1 Comment

  • Maureen says:

    This article, The Rise of Toxic Leaders and What To Do About It, is so unnerving and right on what I’ve seen and been subjected to in corporate America. It almost sickened me to read it, because it hit so close to home.

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