There was a time not so long ago when articles about business that used the word “toxic” most likely were about an environmental disaster. That’s still true, but the environment nowadays isn’t a lake, river, ocean, or field that’s been polluted — it’s the organization’s culture.
In recent years I’ve read a good many stories that refer to “toxic co-workers,” “toxic leaders” and “toxic work environments. The terms “toxic work environment” and “toxic boss” have been on an upward trend in Google searches, and research last year by McKinsey found that toxic behavior was the biggest factor for employees leaving their jobs, as well as for things like burnout, depression, and anxiety.
In December 2022, the online job search site the Muse surveyed its audience, and 64.2% of the 1,300 respondents said they had “faced toxic situations at work.” Not surprisingly, they blamed their leaders (44%) and direct managers (41%) far more than co-workers (28%) or teams (16%).
Describing bad leaders and the resulting bad work environments as “toxic,” however, is simply a popular way of describing an age-old problem.
I was on a podcast earlier this year when the discussion turned to my most difficult experiences with a toxic leader. It was more than a decade ago and the situation turned so bad that I resigned. I loved the company, but I couldn’t reconcile what good leadership meant to my boss — who was the company’s CEO — and what it meant to me.
When I reflected on my experiences with that CEO, I realized they were much the same as what workers today express when they describe a toxic boss. The surveys confirm what I consider the top three signs that someone is a toxic leader:
You don’t listen to the input of others.
I don’t know anyone who likes to feel ignored, especially when it’s part of their job to contribute information and opinions that should help shape decisions. Toxic leaders don’t ask many questions, seek much input, or pay much attention to the views of others.
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You listen to others but you don’t care what they think or how they feel.
Some leaders listen with a dismissive attitude. They’ve already made up their minds, and they belittle any ideas that run counter to what they’ve already decided to do.
You don’t tell the truth when it might prevent you from getting your way.
Leaders who are accustomed to getting what they want often give in to the temptation of bending or even breaking the truth if it serves their purposes. But when followers find out their leader is hiding the truth or lying – and they eventually find out – the breach in trust is nearly impossible to repair.
In my experience, toxic leaders usually have redeeming qualities that help them rise through the ranks to positions of influence. My former CEO, for instance, was intellectually brilliant and ranked high when it came to technical skills, but he lacked humility and, at times, integrity. The pollution in his leadership not only caused me to resign, but it ultimately hurt the company and cost him his job.
Before I left, it was easy to see the impact on the culture. As a management team, we were talking in silos and seldom communicated as a team. That led to poor investment decisions and poor financial management. When the 2008 recession hit, those decisions cost the company dearly — in fact, they nearly bankrupted the company.
When an environmental disaster strikes, it can take years to clean up the pollution and restore the land or water sources to something close to their original state. When that happens in a company, the cleanup process is equally difficult and time-consuming. If you have pollution in your culture, the time to start the cleanup is now, especially if you are part of the problem. Begin by owning up to your toxicity, and then make a daily commitment to transparency that rebuilds trust. Otherwise, everything around you will continue to rot.