In the second article in a series on toxic leadership, Kevin Johnson highlights the consequences of this behaviour and the interventions that can tackle it.
The first article in this series looked at the causes of toxic leadership. Left unchecked, this behaviour can have a disastrous impact on teams and organisations.
It can create many problems across the organisation, for example:
- It creates an unpleasant work environment. Toxic leaders micro-manage transactional details. Often, nothing is ‘good enough’ for them. This stifles any passion, innovation and energy in their teams. It breeds compliance, rather than commitment. This impacts not only on the culture of the team but on the entire organisation.
- It creates a false world of isolation where bad decisions get made. Team members become less open and honest with the leader, because they know their views and contributions will be ignored. Information gets withheld because there’s a concern that the leader will ‘shoot the messenger’. Poor judgements get made because the leader doesn’t have the right information. Their arrogance may impede any process of governance or due diligence, so their bad decisions go unchallenged.
- It creates a narrow, short-term focus. The leader becomes focused on driving results from the team, sometimes to the detriment of other functions in the business. Toxic leadership is often evident amongst functional leaders, who are vying for promotion and competing with their peers for budget and resources. Sometimes their goal is to get the next position, not to build a performance culture. As such, they don’t take a long-term view; they focus on short-term returns.
- It sets a bad example. There’s a danger that toxic behaviour can be seen as the benchmark for success in an organisation. When that happens, line managers further down can start to replicate the negative example of a toxic boss. Poisonous, detrimental behaviour then starts to ‘infect’ leaders at all levels of the company.
- Talented people leave. Studies show that talented individuals will leave if they don’t feel connected to their employer’s mission, if they don’t feel they’re adding value or if they’re no longer growing. A toxic leader is unlikely to make an employee feel connected to the purpose of the business – or feel valued. They won’t help that person grow; they’ll micro-manage them … or ignore them. So talented people are likely to jump ship to somewhere they’ll feel more appreciated. The cost of toxic leadership therefore goes beyond the impact it has on the present-day performance of the business. It can affect the whole future of the organisation, if it forces out the next generation of leaders.
Undoubtedly, there is long-term value in addressing toxic leadership. An intervention is needed to tackle this behaviour. This can be initiated by:
- The line manager. If a leader’s behaviour is toxic, their line manager is usually the best person to have a tough conversation with them. With senior managers, the CEO should intervene to help them see the negative consequences of their behaviour. They need to have the courage to say that good leadership is not only about ‘what’ you do, it’s also about ‘how’ you do it. Ultimately, if the individual’s behaviour doesn’t change, that person should be asked to leave – even if they’re a rainmaker!
- HR practitioners. If the CEO’s behaviour is toxic, then HR can act as the catalyst for change. If HR is valued in the organisation, this could involve a direct conversation with the CEO, in which the HR practitioner ‘holds up a mirror’ to reveal the toxic behaviour. Here, the language used should not be accusatory; it should help the CEO to see the impact of their behaviour – and to understand how changing their behaviour will help others to succeed. Alternatively, HR’s role could be to initiate feedback and/or coaching for the CEO or for other leaders in the business (see below). Because they’ll hear complaints about toxic behaviour first-hand from disgruntled employees, or they’ll get insights into bad behaviour via the performance management process, HR practitioners are in a unique position to initiate an intervention. But they’ll need the courage and the will to address the situation.
- Feedback. 360-degree feedback is one way to help a leader understand how they are perceived by those around them. However, the feedback providers need to have the courage to tell that individual what they really think. Another option is ‘behavioural intelligence observation’. This is a process in which leaders are observed undertaking a specific task (such as a meeting) and they’re assessed according to how they use 14 specific behaviours. These behaviours indicate whether their leadership is trusted or toxic. For example, toxic leaders will more often propose their own ideas, rather than building on the ideas of others, and they’ll give much more information rather than inviting others to speak. Trusted leaders may do the same but their behaviour will be more ‘balanced’ between the two extremes. For example, they’ll be as interested in hearing from others as they are in expressing themselves. Behavioural intelligence observation has proved popular because it provides specific feedback and a tangible measure of a leader’s behaviour, in a safe environment.
- Coaching. Leaders sometimes have the wrong perception about coaching; they see it as a response to a development need. But many of the world’s highest performers – in sport and in business – benefit from having their own coach. HR practitioners should position coaching as a positive choice for toxic leaders. A good coach will help a toxic leader to see the reality of their behaviour and to think about the impact it has on others.
Ultimately, the challenge for toxic leaders who want to reform is to regain the trust of their teams. This is difficult … but it’s possible if the leader can demonstrate competence, integrity and compassion in every interaction with every team member. That’s the key to dissolving toxic leadership.
In the last article in this series on toxic leadership, we’ll look at the steps that HR can take to prevent it.