Are You a Toxic Leader


Are you a toxic leader? No?

Well, read on – you may be surprised.

Recently, Accenture studied the reasons employees most often leave a job, and listed the top four complaints voiced by departing employees as 1) lack of recognition for my contribution (41%); 2) the company’s internal politics (35%); 3) I don’t like my boss (31%); and 4) a lack of empowerment in my work (31%).

Each of these primary causes of voluntary departure is attributable to poor employee management, which can invariably be traced to one or more toxic bosses poisoning the work environment at various levels of an organization.

Gallup has published its estimate of the negative impact of bad bosses on employee work product and performance: the cumulative profitability losses attributable to employee disengagement cost business between $450 and $550 billion – yes, that’s BILLION (not million) – per year!

Toxic bosses are no joke.

Among workers everywhere, “bad boss” horror stories abound. It seems toxic personalities accede to positions of authority with great regularity and in large numbers, to wreak untold damage on employee morale, hamper the professional growth of the team they purport to lead, and negatively impact overall company performance.

In some instances, however, distracting personal problems, new manager misunderstanding of the requirements of direct supervision, weak leadership skills or the failure to adapt management style to the current workplace, as well as other debilitating – but temporary or reparable – factors, can conspire against a manager so that he or she delivers sub-par performance; unfortunately, to the detriment of those employees within his or her span of control. The key words here, however, are temporary and reparable.

There are actually seven basic categories of toxic leaders, and a little honest self-evaluation may reveal that you unwittingly share characteristics with some of them. But bad habits are meant to be broken, and self-awareness is a powerful tool for successfully modifying or improving your own management performance.

  • The Taskmaster: Taskmasters are good at achieving results, but treat their followers poorly, and therefore generally attain only short lived success. They can, however, be effective in turning failing businesses around because they are capable of making decisions that may be unpopular, or run against the grain. The opinions of others do not affect their behavior as boss, and rarely affect them personally. This personality type is absolutely convinced that his or her vision is superior to all others. They rarely admit fault, or share accolades.

Autocratic, authoritarian and demanding, The Taskmaster is very good at cracking the whip, but is insensitive to the point of abrasiveness. These know-it-alls rarely build consensus or garner the counsel of others before taking action that is disruptive to the organization.

Employees perform out of fear rather than the desire to do a job well and, hence, fail to grow professionally. Resentment and stress are high among employees working under such a boss, and unit cohesion and employee morale suffer. All are relieved to see this toxic boss move on – but, should The Taskmaster remain, many may elect to transfer or leave a company to escape the oppressive work environment this type of boss engenders.

  • The Cheerleader: Employees love The Cheerleader – to a point. Seemingly benign, this boss can be highly damaging. The Cheerleader is pleasingly people-oriented, but makes it his or her central objective to be popular. The perpetual effort to “understand,” get along with, encourage and reward employees in order to be liked is this boss’s skewed interpretation of appropriate employee management. This mistaken approach creates a strong tendency to avoid dealing with conflict or confront performance problems appropriately, so that negative behaviors compound until team cohesion is affected and the issues are more difficult to resolve.

 Eager to please and be liked by upper management, as well, The Cheerleader may agree to unachievable timetables, then implore team members, using guilt, concessions, or the promise of reward to induce them to work late hours, attempting the impossible.

Fond of training sessions to ensure all team members “are on the same page,” and lengthy meetings to reach the desired degree of consensus, The Cheerleader allows office work to fall behind, forcing employees to work longer hours to accomplish normal tasks.

The Cheerleader blurs the line between a manager’s duties to the company and to his or her subordinates, and so becomes ineffectual as a boss. Misplaced efforts to be “understanding” and overlook employee performance deficits set this boss up to be easily manipulated by those who perceive themselves as “victims” – or by those employees whose personal problems abound. Ambitious subordinates will also discern and take advantage of The Cheerleader’s insecure need for constant approval, and may work harder to ingratiate themselves with the boss and gain concessions than to accomplish their assigned tasks. The end result of such manipulation by various employees gives the appearance of favoritism, even if none is intended. Emotionally healthy and competent employees are often paid scant attention while excessive time is spent with marginal workers, trying to encourage improvement.

The overuse and frequently indiscriminate nature of this boss’s reward practices also tends to kindle resentment among higher achieving employees, who see it as a failure to appropriately recognize and appreciate a job well done. They are insulted by the bestowal of equivalent performance rewards on the undeserving. This practice kills motivation, and the unexpressed anger it naturally gives rise to damages overall team cohesion.

  • The Figurehead: This type of toxic boss doesn’t play to win. Rather, he or she plays to not lose, doing just enough to stay afloat. The Figurehead will often hold back team performance for their own benefit, thus preventing the creation of higher expectations which they must then sustain. With this toxic boss, work is definitely a four-letter-word. Situationally reactive, this bad boss fails to plan effectively, fails to challenge employees and develop their skills, and fails to set team goals that will lead to more effective performance.

If you have ever wondered about a Figurehead boss, “How in the world did HE get this job?” your answer may lie in the fact that people are promoted based on performance in their last position – not because of potential to meet the challenges of the new one.

The Figurehead boss is often created when a manager’s upward progress has halted. This boss recognizes that the degree of effort he or she would need to put forth to revive a stagnant career and recreate a future within the company is either an effort they are unwilling to make, or is – effectively – no longer possible.

Figurehead bosses embody “The Peter Principle” – an organizational theory posited by Laurence J. Peter (1969) The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. New York: William Morrow and Company, which holds that in a hierarchy, employees will be promoted until they reach their “level of incompetence” – after which all career progress stops.

Resigned to this fact and no longer willing to expend effort with no hope of reward, these toxic bosses are just biding time, putting in the final years necessary to maximize retirement benefits.

There are certainly exceptions. Sometimes, bosses who fall into The Figurehead category may have significant personal problems that rob them of focus and sidetrack their professional growth; still others may have become disillusioned and unhappy with the company or its hierarchy and are thus unmotivated and immobilized at work, expending energy, instead, on finding a way out of their predicament.

  • The Ghost: This boss is generally unavailable to deal with day-to-day responsibilities or to make decisions and give guidance, usually citing some important place or event where their involvement and presence are required, – whether some mysterious but vital project that appears to have no end, a high-level business meeting offering the opportunity to schmooze with power brokers, a “must-attend” conference, necessary management programs, or more business travel.

The Ghost is good at delegating – just before he or she slips off for hours, days or weeks at a stretch, leaving one or two employees “in charge” while the boss is elsewhere. Essentially leaderless, the team is forced to carry on with little or no support. Those left in charge lack the authority to plan, to set goals, to discipline recalcitrant employees or make critical decisions. Furthermore, the need to “stand in” for the missing boss imposes additional work upon the responsible employee(s), who may still be expected to handle their own job.

Toxic bosses of this sort may be avoiding what they regard as the onerous responsibilities of management, in which they have lost all interest, or for which they are ill prepared. They may be busying themselves with climbing the corporate ladder by seeking favor through social or volunteer activities, or they may be scouting for another job outside the company. Who knows? Only time will tell. And, usually, it is only a matter of time before their chronic absences draw the attention of higher-ups and they are invited to leave, permanently.

  • The Diva: Divas behave like royalty, demanding subservience and adoration from their subordinates. Proud and often vain, these narcissistic bosses expect fawning employees to deliver praise and compliments, bring them coffee, run personal errands, jump at their every command, and stand aside as they bask in the limelight that their hard-working “underlings” deserve for completing an important project well, and on time. Subordinates are frequently asked to work overtime to complete such tasks for the boss’s greater glory, while the Diva blithely sails out the door at five o’clock.

The Diva is selfish to a fault, always putting him- or herself first, only appreciating employees when they can directly help advance The Diva’s career. The behavior of this toxic boss can be exasperating and off-putting, rather than actually disruptive. However, employee resentment will generally build over time. This typically leads to repeated passive-aggressive behaviors on the part of subordinates. Professionalism is left by the wayside in their attempts to thwart the Diva subliminally and gain satisfaction from the inevitable meltdown when the Diva implodes in bewildered frustration.

  • The Stealth-Bomber: Perhaps the most toxic boss, and one posing the greatest danger to employees and upper management, alike, is The Stealth-Bomber. This individual’s personality carries over into his or her management style with full malice, and forces subordinates and others in his span of control to operate in defensive mode. This boss is suspicious and vengeful by nature and lives by the philosophy of “get them before they get you.”

The Stealth-Bomber’s modus operandi is to zero in on employee (or upper management) weaknesses, target an individual or group of individuals for a strike and then plot an attack, acting preemptively or seeking retribution for negligible, anticipated, or even perceived slights or offenses.

The Stealth-Bomber will encourage infighting among team members, thus laying ground for poor job performance and consequent bad reviews. This highly toxic boss seems to thrive on self-created chaos, which then justifies his or her expectation that no one can be trusted to do things right and that everyone is trying to undermine him or her. Paranoia and an in-bred resentment of others are hallmarks of this incredibly bad boss.

  • The Outright Bully: As on the playground, bullying takes many forms, most often typified by gender. When they grow up, men and women continue to bully in gender-specific ways, with men being more direct and physically intimidating, bullying overtly through office pranks, referring to subordinates by derisive nicknames, and general verbal harassment of target employees. Women bully more subtly, but just as cruelly, being slyer and more devious in their attacks. They often use back-handed “compliments,” emote through a variety of glares and facial expressions to communicate their reaction, or employ passive-aggressive behaviors to set certain employees up to fail.

For the employee, the outcome is the same: a dread of the workplace and of interaction with the boss, and the potential of lasting career damage. Employee performance and morale suffer greatly in the toxic office atmosphere, where everyone strives to remain invisible, so as not to attract The Bully’s attention, curtailing most employee input, output, and innovation as a result.

Unfortunately, the hierarchy of many business enterprises fosters the development of The Outright Bully, particularly within a highly competitive corporate culture that exhibits an organizational or professional disdain for lower-level employees. This disdain is usually based on the chasm between the extremely high levels of education or technical knowledge of the management class relative to that of support staff. Scientific, medical, legal, engineering, technological and other higher-education-specific enterprises come to mind.

Bad bosses share one or more similar traits:

  • They are never wrong
  • Employees must fight for access to discuss or gain approval for every idea, need or request
  • They fail to set clear goals
  • They ignore the need to gain consensus or to even discuss plans affecting the team
  • They play favorites, coddling and rewarding the most obsequious employees while ignoring the rest
  • They consistently take credit for the achievements of others
  • They demand and expect personal services from employees on company time
  • They are untrustworthy
  • They over-promise, but fail to deliver
  • They displace responsibility and do not defend employees when their specific instructions are carried out, but are later viewed unfavorably by others in the company
  • They gossip, or inappropriately share intimate knowledge about others with their employees
  • They create a highly competitive atmosphere between subordinates, rather than encouraging cooperation and emphasizing common goals
  • They are mistrustful of everyone
  • They micro-manage
  • They discourage innovation and refuse to entertain new ideas
  • They are negative, or focus on negative aspects of every situation or company position
  • They are highly critical of everyone and everything
  • They openly and frequently criticize upper management
  • They openly and frequently criticize employees, or their own peers
  • They fail to set boundaries and are too familiar with subordinates, sharing intimate information or discussing their own personal problems openly, and at length
  • They show no respect for their employees, disciplining team members in front of others
  • They sow discord and discontent
  • They react inconsistently
  • They so dislike hearing work-related bad news of any sort that employees hesitate to bring urgent matters to their attention
  • They fail to address misconduct or slacking
  • Never satisfied, they fail to give encouragement and tend to review employees unfairly, holding them to impossible standards

If you recognize any of the traits or behaviors described in this article as applying to your management style, take note. It is never too late to change.

You will, most likely, find your efforts to become a better boss appreciated, and rewarded by improved employee performance and smoother office interaction – the perfect win-win.


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