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Few exchanges cause more anxiety than confrontation in the workplace. Scarier still is navigating such situations when it’s your toxic boss who needs confronting. A myriad of questions arise: Will I be supported if I confront my superior? How will they react? Will I lose my job? Is it even that bad? Is my boss really “toxic”? According to studies, three out of every ten leaders are, in fact, toxic, making these insatiable leaders rampant among the workplace.

Still, even with such a staggering percentage, how do you know if your boss is actually “toxic,” rather than just a bad fit for your particular work style? Let us explore the problems of toxic leadership, how one can identify it, and take action in the workplace.


What is toxic leadership?

Toxic leaders “consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves.” In other words, they’re bullies with the power to remove you from your livelihood.

The problem with this style of leadership is the environment it creates. It breeds instability, corrupts creativity, and undermines free will.


What is the toxic triangle?

The “toxic triangle” is a term used by researchers to define the perfect storm of toxicity in the workplace. It is composed of three main factors:

Toxic leaders: managers or executives with autocratic, narcissistic, and otherwise manipulative tendencies

Susceptible followers: includes conformers (crave direction) and colluders (crave power).

Conducive environment: a culture with questionable values, standards, and safeguards.

For a company to protect its people, it must keep in mind these three factors of toxicity.


Main characteristics of toxic leadership

What specific characteristics does a toxic leader have? Below is a “toxic leader checklist” that will help you identify when you see one. Keep in mind, this list is not extensive, and every toxic leader won’t necessarily display every one of these characteristics. Still, these five are particularly pervasive and should be on your radar.

  1. Absolute power. Toxic leaders desire and feel they deserve, autocracy over their organizations. They are at the top of the heap, and everyone else is far below them. This hierarchy exists to ensure these leaders have their hands in everything so they can control every aspect of the organization’s processes. After all, in their minds, they are the ones that seek dominance over prestige.
  2. No feedback cycle. Due to their narcissistic attitudes, toxic leaders have an inability to get or give constructive feedback. They are unable to see their faults because they feel they do everything right. As a result, they cannot see their employees clearly either. There is no feedback, only punishment for not following their strict instructions.
  3. Incompetent. Again due to their inflated egos, toxic leaders don’t typically take the time to learn all the skills required to do their job well. They fail to recognize problems and lack the flexibility needed to solve them (which ironically diminishes authority on their part).
  4. Ambiguous instructions coupled with unrealistic expectations. Toxic leaders set their employees up for failure. Unsurprisingly, their grandiose ideas of self also apply to their own capabilities and that of their organization. Due to their lack of real skill, they cannot set clear goals for their employees and often end up over-promising and under-delivering.
  5. Hierarchical in nature. Toxic leaders create an environment of unhealthy competition. They will pit employees against each other and create an inner circle of “true followers.” This hierarchy serves to keep team members “in line,” so everyone knows their place. Usually, within these ranks, toxic leaders single out a scapegoat. Someone disposable but important enough to take the fall when a bad leader’s incompetence catches up to them.


Examples of toxic leadership at the workplace


Example 1

These characteristics were uncovered in some army generals through a study done by David Matsuda. In attempting to understand the rate at which soldiers were committing suicide, a general invited Professor Matsuda to aide in his investigation. Matsuda discovered that many of the soldiers were under the tyranny of toxic leaders who were intimidating and unfairly punishing them.

Once the investigation started, it was estimated that some 20% of soldiers were reporting to toxic leaders. According to research, the reason this leadership style is so prevalent in the army is because “performance is evaluated in a top-down fashion.” This means soldiers could not assess their superiors, and thus, these toxic leaders were allowed to continue their abusive behavior without being held accountable. The army has taken drastic actions to ensure this problem doesn’t persist. But it is an example of how dangerous it can be when leaders have no accountability to the people they are leading.


Example 2

Another modern example of a toxic leader given power, in this case, out of desperation, is Al Dunlap, the former CEO of Sunbeam Corporations. In Jean Lipman-Bluman’s book “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” she describes the company as struggling when it decided to hire Dunlap to shake things up and get them on the right track. Dunlap had fabricated and published stories about his business savvy and success. Sunbeam felt they were being saved from ruin when Dunlap agreed to join the team and helm the ship.

Almost immediately, he began verbally abusing his subordinates. He missed deadlines and was utterly incompetent in his role as CEO. Eventually, his lies caught up to him, but not before he drove the company to financial bankruptcy. Dunlap’s greedy grasp for power and his distorted perception of his capabilities made him a toxic leader. But Sunbeam’s vulnerable state and lack of company culture made them prime pickings for a dictator like Dunlap.


Example 3

Few stories in recent history have had quite the impact as that of ridesharing service, Uber, and its maligned leadership. In February 2017, software engineer Susan Fowler wrote a 3,000-word blog post detailing her year at Uber: in which a manager had sexually harassed her. Still, Uber’s HR department had refused to take any action, even after receiving similar reports from multiple women.

Fowler’s story sparked a major debate about sexism, harassment, and the unjust use of power in Silicon Valley. Her post was shared over 22,000 times on Twitter, led to multiple contract terminations, and precipitated the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick. Since her departure at Uber, Fowler has worked as editor-in-chief for Stripe’s quarterly publication, Increment, and now writes as technology opinion editor for The New York Times.


How to deal with toxic leadership

If reading this is setting off alarm bells, you might be working for a toxic leader. After combing through all the characteristics and examples, one might feel anxious about confronting someone so menacing. Yet, according to Lipman-Blueman, the best way to approach a toxic leader is simply to do it. “Confront the fear and worry of challenging a toxic leader. Exercising courage will make you stronger,” she says.

Be honest

One of the major elements that allow these types of leaders to gain more power is silence, neutrality, and compliance from employees. Breaking this destructive cycle forces bad leadership to be confronted with their ineptitude while simultaneously alerting their superiors of the problem. To ensure a more open and safe environment for everyone, it is vital to exhibit total honesty and courage when providing feedback on abusive work cultures.

Redefine company culture

It is also essential to ensure that once a toxic leader is gone, a revision of the corporate structure that produced such a leader takes place. If company culture lacks a sense of self-awareness, you’re bound to end up under the thumb of another toxic leader. A healthy work environment can only thrive if leadership “nurtures and grows the physiological, psychosocial, and spiritual well-being of its organizational members.” If employees’ welfare isn’t taken seriously, any change in bad leadership will only be temporary.

Set realistic expectations

A huge component in shifting company culture is redefining success. While it is important to set and accomplish goals, how they are achieved is crucial. Toxic leaders will realize goals by any means necessary, even at the expense of their employees’ health. Good leaders will set realistic goals and expectations and will never ask employees to sacrifice their physical or mental well-being to meet deadlines.

Lead with integrity

To actualize a well-defined company culture, it is imperative to promote leaders who are optimistic yet realistic. A healthy leader will inspire their employees, not intimidate them. They will create an environment that thrives on effective feedback and will be open to hearing how they can improve. Good leaders recognize they can’t do it all and will be willing to delegate tasks. All employees will be treated equally because leaders with integrity don’t play favorites.

Within this type of environment, studies show employees work harder and are happier to come in every day. When support starts at the top and is felt throughout, it motivates everyone to do their best. And with that support comes a kind of creativity that only happens when one is truly free.