Leadership

How to spot toxic leadership—and what to do about it

Posted on: March 19, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

Do you remember your schoolyard bully? 

Their impact can be hard to forget: bullies break down your confidence, make you feel isolated and push you out of spaces you deserve to be in. 

Bullies exist in the workplace, too—and they often take the form of toxic leaders. You’re not alone if you’re struggling under the rule of toxic leadership in your workplace. In a survey conducted by The Muse, nearly two-thirds (64.2%) of employees admitted to facing toxic workplace situations, with 44% identifying their leader as the instigator.

Toxic leadership at work warning signs and solutions

We recently spoke to Loren Sanders, coach, talent management consultant and author of the book Empathy Is Not A Weakness: And Other Stories from the Edge, about how organizations can confront and combat toxic leadership. She offered key practices for individuals and businesses that want to get things back on track so employees feel safe, respected and supported to do their best work.

Characteristics of a toxic leader

A toxic leader is more than just a bad manager. Toxic leaders bully, intimidate and exploit their teams, creating a work environment that erodes trust, damages relationships and undermines the well-being of employees. 

The National Institute of Health has categorized the patterns of toxic leadership into four buckets: egotism, ethical failures, incompetence and neuroticism. Sanders also notes that the perception of toxicity can be influenced by social constructs and gender: “Women are more likely to view the leaders as toxic, while men are more inclined to collude.” 

Do you recognize her warning signs of toxic leadership in your workplace?

  • Abuses others with behaviors that intentionally harm, intimidate, gaslight and manipulate 
  • Has an inflated sense of ego and self-worth 
  • Exploits, micromanages and undermines talented, highly ethical employees (out of fear of being exposed as a fraud)
  • Appears one way to superiors while belittling direct reports
  • Lacks accountability or responsibility, with a self-serving bias that redirects blame to others for failures
  • Willingness to compromise other team members and the company at large to maintain their power status
  • Lacks interest in genuine listening, collaboration or concern for others (or says all the right things, but their words don’t match their actions)
  • Thrives when creating an environment of fear and instability 

“Sometimes toxic leadership and bad management overlap in practice.  But they originate from two completely different sets of behaviors, and the impacts are vastly different.”

Loren Sanders, coach, talent management consultant and author 

Why organizations should be on high alert for toxic leadership

Once the warning signs are spotted, it’s important for organizations to act fast. As Sanders acknowledges, the impact of a toxic leader can be profound and wide-ranging, and the adverse effects have the potential to poison every aspect of the workplace—from employee well-being and mental health to the bottom line. 

“If there’s an unspoken rule where toxic leadership is just accepted and promoted, you wind up with a culture of fear and people who are more concerned with avoiding negative repercussions than sharing ideas,” says Sanders. “Long-term, that’s going to impact your recruiting, it’s going to impact your retention, not to mention legal and compliance risks, your brand image, your reputation. And even if it’s only in pockets, it can still undermine the strategic alignment of an entire organization.”

For large, distributed workforces, it can be harder to spot the symptoms of toxic leadership because it’s impossible to be present in every room or hear every conversation. Toxic leaders can fly under the radar in these environments, especially if they’re good at hitting their individual accountability goals. 

A strategic and holistic approach to identifying toxic behaviors—one that looks at both the behaviors of leaders and the broader organizational context—can help organizations zoom in on what’s actually happening on the leadership level before it’s too late.

“When trust and safety are lacking, how are people supposed to innovate or collaborate?

 Loren Sanders, coach, talent management consultant and author 

Steps to reclaim your workplace from toxic leadership

So you have a toxic leadership problem. What can you do about it? 

Sanders offers suggestions for individuals AND businesses who want to spark positive change and reclaim the workplace from toxicity.

Observe meaningful metrics and organizational health indicators to assess the workplace environment

How leaders interact with their reports on a daily basis can be a good indicator of the health of their teams. Is there excessive control with little room for autonomy, creativity or innovation? Are you losing your best people to turnover and absenteeism? What opportunities are people receiving (or not receiving) for coaching, mentoring and development? 

These should be areas of concern if you’re auditing your leadership teams’ effectiveness.

Understand that addressing toxic leadership is a collective responsibility—not just an HR problem

While Sanders acknowledges that most workplaces have a board of directors, HR policies and confidential reporting channels in place to prevent toxic behavior, they’re not always used as intended. Unreported incidents can be detrimental because toxic behaviors that are tolerated become normalized. 

“What we really need is transparent reporting in confidential and secure ways that colleagues actually trust without the fear of retaliation and including clear definitions and consequences along with better development programming. But that takes culture change,” she says.

Document EVERYTHING

Don’t allow toxic behaviors to be swept under the rug. Keep track of what happens and when—even if you’re not ready to report just yet. “You never know where things will land or if you’ll be called upon to answer questions about it. Document the dates, the times, what was said, what was done and who witnessed it, in case you need to support something later. And know what the policies and procedures are.”

Find a trusted mentor or coach

Having someone on your team—someone you can trust to guide you through the hard times and remind you of your talent—can be integral to overcoming workplace toxicity. “They don’t give you answers, but they help you work through your own thinking about things. Your mentor can give you answers and offer advice or support. Sometimes, a great mentor who sits at a higher level than you can help you advocate for yourself and build your support network, but don’t build it for drama.” 

Interrupt your own toxic thinking patterns

If you’re dealing with a toxic leader, stay calm and respond rather than react. Disengage as much as possible from abusive conversations instead of pushing back, which might provoke your leader even more. Redirect conversations, develop yourself and plan your exit if necessary. “Above everything else, check yourself for toxic traits because sometimes it’s us; it’s not always the leader. So check yourself and understand what that means,” says Sanders.

Want to learn more about overcoming toxic leadership in your workplace? Get all the insights shared by Loren Sanders in the full interview below:

Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.