Toxic leadership 3: How to prevent it

In the last article in this series on toxic leadership, Kevin Johnson explains how to stop it from destroying your organisation.

In the first two articles in this series, we looked at the causes and consequences of toxic leadership – and we examined what can be done to address it.

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We’ve learned that toxic leadership can be a problem for leaders at any level. Leadership becomes toxic when a leader attempts to coerce others. It shows itself in bullying, aggressive, arrogant, dictatorial or manipulative behaviour; ineffective communication; micro-management and a lack of empathy. A toxic leader can unfairly judge, attack, blame or ridicule others; strengthen and defend their own position; block ideas and exclude or ‘talk over’ team members. Left unchecked, this behaviour can have a disastrous impact on teams and organisations.

As well as tackling instances of toxic leadership when they arise, HR teams should take five steps to prevent it from occurring in the first place. These are:

  • Provide ‘early career’ management training. L&D teams should ensure that first-line managers are trained in the key skills of interpersonal communication, giving and receiving feedback, motivating others and having tough conversations. Early leaders need to learn how and when to ‘flex’ their leadership style to suit the circumstances. They should also learn to value the contributions of their team, so they manage by praise and reward, not by finding fault in others. The right way to lead must be instilled at the outset.
  • Develop trust at all levels. A development programme on building trust – with each other and with customers – can be run for all levels of staff. This can help to champion the value of competence, integrity and compassion in the business.
  • Assess leadership candidates effectively. Utilise personality, values, integrity and motivation assessments to gain a complete picture of your leadership candidates before they’re appointed.
  • Provide feedback. Leaders at all levels can benefit from performance feedback that not only highlights their behaviour but shows whether it aligns to their personal values. Equipping managers with higher levels of emotional intelligence helps them to lead by example and it facilitates behavioural change. When behaviour is measured, people are more conscious of what they do, what others do and what needs to be done, to enhance effectiveness.
  • Monitor the performance of leaders. If any potential signs of derailment or any evidence of toxic behaviour occur, nip it in the bud.
  • Role model good behaviour. Leaders have a responsibility to set the tone for those below them. Showcase examples of positive leadership behaviour in your organisation.
  • Retain a healthy balance of Board leadership. Board members should be appointed who have the courage to challenge any instances of toxic behaviour in the CEO or other senior managers.

The benefits

Toxic leaders can gain clear benefits by changing their behaviour and regaining the trust of their teams. This is possible if the leader can demonstrate competence, integrity and compassion in every interaction with every team member. If they learn to rely on their team, not just on their own capability, they’ll not only feel less stressed, their team will be more creative and it will perform at its highest capability. Instead of wasting effort on transactional activities, the leader will be freed up to spend more time on their strategic priorities and on coaching and encouraging their teams. In other words, they’ll get better results with less effort.

On top of that, the organisation will benefit from higher trust, a more positive culture, increased talent retention and ultimately enhanced productivity.

So don’t accept toxic leadership behaviour. Follow the steps outlined in this series to stop it from destroying your organisation.




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