Emily Marsh April 30 2019

Britney called it: toxic leadership is 'dangerous'

The long-term impacts of toxic leadership can be huge. It can damage the health of our business and ourselves. The trouble is, people don't always realise they are working in a toxic leadership culture. So how do you spot the signs? And what can you do about it?

Elon Musk. Steve Jobs. Winston Churchill. What do they all have in common? They are all incredibly successful in business. They are held up as people we should emulate and aspire to be like. Yet, all three of them also show some serious signs of toxic leadership.

  • Elon Musk has been described as “a megalomaniac genius who struggles to regulate his emotions”. He publicly berates employees and demands people work at an exhausting pace.
  • Steve Jobs has been tarnished for breaking nearly every leadership rule. A dictator, a micromanager, and completely unapproachable.
  • Then there’s Winston Churchill. Though marked as an extraordinary leader for helping steer Britain through World War II, there was a dark side to his legacy. He’s been labelled a bigot, a racist, and he too was no stranger to chastising his colleagues.

How much do we really want our leaders to emulate these people? Toxic leaders create a toxic culture, is business success really worth it? How can you spot risks, take opportunities, or innovate if you fear other people’s reactions, walk on eggshells, or are so stressed you can’t concentrate on anything else?

Toxic leadership is bad for business and toxic leadership is bad for you. The trouble is, people don’t always realise when they are in a toxic environment. So how can you spot the signs and what can you do about it?

Toxic leadership is bad for business

Though they may not realise it, people working under a toxic leadership are constantly alert and on the lookout for the first sign of danger. Think how a meerkat will pop their head up, eyes darting around looking for danger - it's exactly the same for people working in a toxic environment.

This level of anxiety is bad for our health, but it’s also bad for productivity. Think about your rates of long-term sickness, work-related stress, and higher-than-you’d-like staff turnover. How much is a toxic leader and the culture that follows costing you and your bottom line?

It’s also  in the stuff you can't see on your KPIs or a profit and loss sheet:

  • How many people are just sat at their desks with their minds elsewhere?
  • How many risks have come true or only narrowly been avoided?
  • How many opportunities have you missed - or you couldn’t even see they were there?
  • How many points on your customer satisfaction score are you lacking because someone is more worried about their nasty manager than being the best they can be?

We talk about authenticity in leadership. If people are constantly worried about saying or doing the wrong things, how can they possibly be themselves? When in a state of perpetual fear, people start to act differently, they may make themselves smaller, they may dampen down their skills, their experience, or their intelligence. They may end up in a spiral of feeling undervalued and then unable to offer value as they don’t know where to step next.

What is your business missing out on when people keep their heads down and their mouths shut?

Toxic leadership is bad for you

All this fear, worry, and inability to be yourself is bad for your confidence and bad for your career. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • How many of us have had periods where we know we are coasting along?
  • How many of our colleagues seem complacent?
  • Have we ever stopped and considered what is causing and encouraging ourselves and others to tread water or to do the bare minimum?

If you find yourself treading water or consistently biting your tongue at work, these acts of self-preservation may have additional and long-lasting consequences. You may find that you have eroded your sense of worth, you’re unlikely to have added anything of value to your CV, and you may, in fact, be having a seriously damaging effect on your health.

Continuing to work in this state is, quite literally, toxic.

Cortisol is the feeling of stress and the feeling of anxiety - a stress hormone we share with all animals. It’s the first stage of fight or flight, and what keeps us alive when faced with fear. Cortisol is designed to get us out of danger, so it suppresses everything our bodies don’t need at that moment, allowing us to focus solely on the task at hand - survival. It causes our heart rate to rise, it puts glucose into our muscles, and it makes us paranoid. When the danger passes, the cortisol leaves our body, we relax, and our heartbeat goes down.

But what if we are constantly in fear? What if we constantly have cortisol dripping into our system?

This constant state of watchfulness impacts our health, how we act, and even how we react to people around us. It makes it difficult to see the silver lining. We physiologically can’t shake it off because our bodies are fighting against us. It’s why we can’t sleep properly, why we don’t go to the gym, why we're not looking after ourselves, and it impacts our decision-making ability because everything else is off.

As Simon Sinek shared in his ‘Why Leaders Eat Last’ presentation, “When we go to work in a place that doesn’t make us feel like we belong, that doesn’t make us feel safe when we’re at work, guess what? We’ve got little bits of cortisol dripping in our body. It makes us paranoid, it makes us self-interested, it inhibits the release of oxytocin, making you biologically less empathetic and less generous. Our immune systems are now compromised...”

Spot the signs of toxic leadership

Perhaps you know something is wrong. Or, perhaps the more pernicious results of a toxic leadership culture is that you don’t know you’re in it. You know something isn’t quite right, things aren’t working the way you think they should, but you don’t know why.

So how can you spot if your workplace is toxic for you?

Here are 12 signs of toxic leadership:

  • Leaders say they have an open door policy, but you can’t ever get through the threshold.
  • Leaders are consistently withholding information, constantly changing the direction, and not being transparent about why.
  • New ideas are regularly shot down or ignored, or you don’t feel like they are welcome in the first place.
  • Leaders never talk about culture, trust, and teamwork. They talk only about targets and goals.
  • People are openly talking about how much they hate their jobs and how awful management is. It’s very us and them.
  • There are lots of mini conversations: pre-briefings to get the buy-in, or everyone goes quiet when you walk in the room to make sure it's safe to keep talking.
  • You know that everyone around you is job hunting.
  • You find you're changing your own behaviour or your opinions just to please people or have a quieter life.
  • You dread going to work. Sunday evenings are the worst.
  • You feel you are constantly being undermined.
  • You feel like you can’t do anything right.
  • You’ve accepted all this as normal.

Waking up from all this is hard - and the cortisol we mentioned earlier makes it even harder. Maybe you talk yourself into thinking everything is ok, because what’s the alternative? Is it really better the devil you know?

But you can step through that fear. You can take back control.  Here’s how.

How to "do something" about toxic leadership

If you find yourself working with a toxic leadership, here are three options.

  • Do nothing. It might be a phase, it might pass, it could be a period of extreme stress that won’t last forever. Give yourself a milestone to check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling, maybe you give it 6 months, until your next review, or when your current project ends.
  • Do something for you and the business. Call out the behaviour and acknowledge the elephant in the room. Speak to the person you think will make the biggest difference in the situation.
  • Do something for you. Perhaps it’s time for a change - to change manager, change role, or to move on entirely.

Click on the flowchart diagram below to work out if you are experiencing a toxic work culture


Britney called it, toxic leadership is dangerous

The long-term impacts of toxic leadership can be huge. It can damage the health of our business and ourselves. Tesla, Apple, and running the British Government in times of war are nuanced and complex feats of leadership. Profitable organisations today demand strong and powerful leaders, but do they really need to be toxic?

How can you be successful in both your business AND your leadership? What do you want to be known for and what impact do you want to have on those around you?

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