Nothing will capsize a culture quicker than toxic leadership. Even with the best intentions, leaders can become toxic and create behavioral patterns counter to what management has envisioned for your business.
Understanding how to recognize the signs of a toxic leader is the first step to addressing the underlying problems that result from toxic leadership: negative outcomes for your company, low morale, lack of productivity, and high turnover.
Here are the signs of a toxic leader and some advice on what to do if you recognize some of these behaviors in your own management style.
1. You Don’t Practice Self-Care
A lot goes into leadership. It requires your time, energy, emotion, and physical presence. To maintain a balanced life, it’s critical that leaders practice regular self-care.
Whenever I train leaders, I always look for whether a manager has practiced self-care. If I notice their self-care is virtually nonexistent, it grabs my attention immediately. While a lack of self-care might not appear to be a major problem on the surface, it corrodes the efficiency and effectiveness of the leader over time.
To put it simply: you can’t give what you don’t have.
Leaders that fail to practice self-care are setting themselves up for burnout. While they eventually find time to recuperate, this burnout trickles down to their employees. Their team will adopt this behavior, and employees will start to neglect their own self-care as a reflection of management’s actions.
Leaders, take note: the first step to self-care is to acknowledge that you need self-care and to schedule a time to make it happen. From there, find daily moments to make self-care a priority. This can be a simple as detaching from technology on your commute or making sure you are properly hydrated (remember to drink ½ your body weight in ounces a day of water — and no, sparkling water doesn’t count).
2. You Make Poor Decisions
Poor decision making hurts the direction of your company, your employees, and your culture. But what makes it toxic?
Poor decision making is contagious and can become a learned behavior, rippling throughout your business and affecting every department. Effective leaders must have a process in place to make good decisions and understand how to pass this knowledge on to other leaders in training.
We’ve all experienced leaders that can’t seem to make up their mind about a direction. Or maybe they make bad decisions that make you question their leadership. When this happens, it can take the momentum out of the room and cause simple tasks to become a dread. Employees are often confused about their roles on projects, and coordinating with other departments can be difficult.
Consider this: if you’re a leader trying to break free from bad decision making, one of the best ways to end this cycle is to collaborate closely with others until you have better insight into what outcomes could result from leadership’s decisions. By understanding the landscape of your situation, you can confidently make informed and careful decisions to avoid this toxic behavior.
3. You Struggle to Respect Others
When leaders lack respect for others, it says more about them than it does about the people they disrespect.
Respect is a simple concept that goes a long way and can be the difference between long-lasting commitment or complete disengagement. Employee disengagement is detrimental to the workplace because it highlights two core things that companies need their employees to buy-in:
- Your company’s purpose, or the “why” behind what you do
- Your company’s vision
Disengagement means employees no longer see the purpose and lack the motivation to follow the company’s vision. Once those two things are lost, it is almost impossible to recover.
Respecting your employees isn’t just about treating people with humanity. It’s about acknowledging that each person, regardless of their job title, deserves respect — especially if you are a leader, setting an example for the rest of your workforce.
Managers, try this: adopt the idea of treating the janitor in your building with the same respect as the CEO of your company. This might take practice, but the more you do it, the better a leader you will become.
4. You Are a Selective Communicator
Toxic leaders don’t universally communicate well. They tend to communicate one way and expect everyone to adapt to their communication style. This behavior is called “selective communication,” and it’s a strong indicator of a toxic leader.
Selective communication results in a struggle to connect with others. Toxic leaders don’t know how to diversify their communication or don’t see the value in doing so, and they can’t connect to their employees.
One of the challenges is that, as a leader, you have to onboard people and follow the company’s vision. To accomplish this, you must speak the language of the people — verbal or otherwise.
Adaptable and diverse communication is the secret to great leadership. That way, no one gets left behind and all are able to follow the vision set before them. Take note of your employees’ communication styles and try to adapt the way you communicate to accommodate them.
For example, if one of your employees is a verbal communicator, be sure to schedule regular in-person meetings with them. If another employee is a strong written communicator, make sure you check in with them via email or your internal chat platform.
Motivational speakers adapt to communication styles well. This skill is a combination of empathy and energy. When this type of adaptable and diverse communication is adopted, employees are quick to get on board because they feel like management is speaking directly to them and recognizing them as individuals, not cogs in the workplace.
Leaders, listen up: if you’re struggling with communication, start by getting a gauge and understanding of how others around you communicate is a great way to start diversifying the way you communicate as a leader.
5. You Don’t Tell the Truth (or Leave Parts of It Out)
Truth is how leaders build trust, and dishonesty is how they lose it, along with their credibility as a leader.
Toxic leaders tend to avoid the truth and struggle to directly communicate. This usually stems from a fear of being disliked or feeling like they are making the situation worse with transparency.
There are two important messages I want to share with leaders:
- Your people can handle the truth. The delivery must be solid, clear, and as straightforward as possible. Not only can they handle the truth, but they will also respect you more for telling it.
- Your employees are smart. They know when leaders feel the need to point out how “transparently they are communicating,” and employees know when they don’t get the full story.
When the truth is fudged, the people become disengaged and, in return, won’t express the full truth themselves. This is bad for business, as trust is what the people and culture need to grow and move forward. Employee feedback is what helps a business scale, and if your employees are incapable of expressing themselves honestly, your company will fail to evolve as it needs to.
If the people can’t trust their leader, they can’t trust the company’s vision. And without faith in the company’s vision, your employees and business stagnate until trust is restored.
Take to heart: the best thing a leader can do is tell the truth — and if it is difficult news, do it with humanity, clarity, and honesty.
6. You Lack Faith
Faith is key for focusing employees on bigger and better goals, even if those goals first seem unachievable.
When toxic leaders lack faith and only make judgements based on what they can see, it minimizes the potential for growth and narrows what can be accomplished. In short, they limit the abilities of those around them by restricting an employee’s ability to be creative, try new things, and test innovative ideas.
Without faith, visions fall short and leaders can’t articulate anything beyond basic solutions for day-to-day problems.
On August 8th 1963, 250,000 people showed up to the Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his I Have a Dream speech about his visiont for equity that — at the time — seemed so far off. Belief in his cause required faith. It was through Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith that he spoke about what is to be accomplished for the equalization, freedom, and the rights of all people. His faith made him a legacy leader that leaders of all kinds are still learning from today.
While there is no magic formula for instant faith, leaders must start trusting the people around them. Doing this frees up space to be creative and allows employees to prove themselves and explore their talents.
7. You Can’t Shake Your Negative Attitude
Leaders are meant to champion their teams to the finish line. This means keeping a positive attitude as much as possible.
We’ve all been in a situation where someone sucks the energy right out of the room by just being present. A negative leader can’t effectively engage a team or inspire them to be productive.
And because you can’t give what you don’t have, any message this leader delivers tends to have a negative thread throughout.
Leaders must rise above.
If you are a negative leader, you create negative teams, and negative teams have difficulty performing the best of their ability.
Try this: if you have an event in your personal life causing negativity, seek outside help to work on the root of the issue and find ways to overcome. If you are unable to work through the issue, empowering a new up-and-coming leader to take on communication and collaborate with you might be the best solution.
Another tip: always assume your employees have the best intentions. Everyone at your company is working toward the same goal: to make your organization a successful place to work. Approach communicating with others with this in mind at all times instead of assuming employees are out to undermine you (and each other).
8. You Don’t Uplift Others
Toxic leaders tend to focus attention on themselves and shut others out when they attempt to shine.
This behavior is derived out of ego and fear. Toxic leaders struggle to reward and recognize their employees for their hard work and instead take credit for others’ successes.
Regardless of the reasons behind these actions, this is the fastest way to lose great employees and make those who do stay feel underappreciated and underrepresented.
Historically, no leader has been able to accomplish great things alone.
Great leaders build up their employees, reward them for outstanding work, and look for opportunities to grow their talents. They see intrinsic value in the people they work with, and they aren’t afraid to cultivate their strengths.
If you can accomplish your vision and goals alone, they aren’t big enough and will likely have a very little impact on your company.
If you’re a leader that would like to recognize your staff more, try this: for each project you work on, make a list of all the people that have helped you along the way. Next, find ways to acknowledge their accomplishments and grow their skills. Practicing this ensures you are fostering an environment that allows everyone to shine.
If you recognize these signs in your own leadership style, start changing your behavior by practicing self-care, seeking out a coach or mentor, and spending time reflecting on what type of leader you want to be.
Leadership is a journey; you aren’t meant to have all the answers or do everything perfectly. Mistakes will happen, but growth must happen as well. Never settle for stagnant or toxic leadership and always keep an out for the next wave of great leaders.
Charisse Fontes is the creator of CultureCircle where she partners with startups on all things people and culture. Charisse also leads training for leaders and creates interactive workshops to assist leaders with leveling up and growing from within.
Charisse is the author of How To Keep Your Culture From Going to :poop emoji: which will be released this fall. It is a guide to creating a healthy startup culture.