In my job, not a day goes by that the topic of culture doesn’t enter the conversation. Inevitably, it also turns to the impact leaders have on culture. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that this comes up a lot more frequently at companies where leaders display destructive behaviours than at companies with inspirational, empowering leaders.
What if there are suspicions of toxic leadership at the top – and unfortunately there have been a few reports of those in the media lately, most recently the allegations against Plopsaland CEO Steve Van den Kerkhof. What are the signs that a company may be dealing with a toxic leader? What keeps such a leader in place? And most importantly: what can be done about it?
Research shows that the CEO is the most important indicator of the culture in an organisation: inspiring leaders can help an organisation scale new heights, but equally toxic leaders can destroy it from the inside-out.
Toxic leaders not only damage organizations by decreasing performance, productivity and suppressing innovation, however, they also inflict significant personal damage to employees, causing exhaustion, anxiety, diminishing self-worth and sometimes even a full-blown burnout.
But as was the case in the Plopsaland media storm last week, allegations of toxic behaviour by leaders may come as a surprise to some in the organization. It is not always easy to spot a toxic leader, because not all are raging tyrants (and equally not all great leaders are mild-mannered and soft spoken). The organizational psychologist Theo Veldsman categorizes these 5 types of toxic leaders:
- The Cold Fish: the ends justifies the means. So any decision and action is justifiable in terms of the results desired.
- The Snake: the world serves me in the endeavor to satisfy my personal needs like greed, status, and power.
- Glory Seeker: personal glory and public visibility at any cost, regardless of whether I have made any real and meaningful contribution.
- Puppet Master: absolute, centralized control over everything and anyone, under all circumstances.
- Monarch: ruling the organization as if it is my kingdom. All of its assets are available for my personal use.
Red flags of toxic leadership
There is an age-old saying that “power corrupts”. There’s a reason why the saying is so well-known: because toxic leadership has been around for centuries and many have fallen prey to it.
As humans, we can all lose our way and make wrong decisions at some point – often influenced by our environment. Toxic leaders are no different. They are not necessarily evil people. A leader’s toxic potential – their self-interest, inflated sense of superiority or loss of moral compass – may be triggered by their environment – the power of their position and their ability to deploy organizational resources at will and whim.
So what are the red flags in leadership to watch out for?
A “God-like” CEO figure
An individual with an inflated sense of self-importance and superiority is never a good choice as CEO. No leader should be deemed so brilliant or vital to a company that the board turns a blind eye to their toxic behaviour. If a CEO can’t be fired because it would hurt the company, then it is not a company; it’s a cult.
Always being right
Toxic leaders are focused on maintaining control and using their position to make sure things happen the way they want them to happen. They consider themselves to be (almost) always right. They don’t like being corrected and aren’t willing to listen to constructive criticism. Leaders who refuse to hear criticism choose not to learn. These leaders are also poor delegators – people and teams are seldomly trusted to make important decisions – and they often only delegate the tasks they dislike doing.
Being overly protective of those who follow them blindly
Toxic leaders like to create political and/or functional alliances that serve their purposes, putting loyal followers into pivotal roles that can be controlled strategically. Under toxic leaders, power becomes consolidated in the hands of a few ‘trustworthy people’ who report directly to them.
Unpredictability and inconsistent expectations
Toxic leaders also tend to be inconsistent, drawing conclusions or making decisions without rational explanation to anyone, or backtracking on what they said. Research shows that this unpredictability leads to insecurity and power struggles between people and teams, which unsurprisingly, lowers productivity, efficiency and damages the ability of an organization to innovate.
Withholding information and/or exaggerating problems
Toxic leaders believe that “knowledge is power” and therefore, seek to keep valuable knowledge to themselves, selectively providing access on a need-to-know basis that suits their purposes. Withholding information makes the leader and those favoured by him/her seem as if they have more power than they have because they are “in the know”.
Blaming it on the team
Nothing screams toxic leadership the way finger-pointing and blame does. When a leader is unable (or unwilling) to look in the mirror, and take responsibility, the easiest fix is to blame it on the team. Comments such as “People should remember how lucky they are to [fill the blank]” or “I’m sick of paying so much and getting this level of commitment” are surefire red flags of a culture horribly skewed.
Being in denial about a broken company culture
Leaders have a pivotal role to play in cultivating a healthy culture. How the CEO values and demonstrates the desired culture should be a key performance indicator for the role. Toxic leaders who get wind of culture problems often pooh-pooh the cultural warning or shoot the messenger with statements such as “you’re exaggerating” and “that’s an isolated example and X is just not competent/committed”. Or they justify a harsh environment by labelling it a “high-performance culture”.
The dynamics that allow toxic leaders to thrive
Toxic leadership is always clearly visible to those who work directly with the leader. These people often wonder: why doesn’t anybody do anything about it? Why are these leaders allowed to stay – some for decades?
To answer this question, we first need to understand how individuals and groups in an organization influence each other to form the culture.
At FTI Consulting, we look at culture through two lenses: how it manifests in people (through personal values, upbringing, mindsets, characteristics, communication and behaviour), and in groups (in group dynamics, inter-dependencies and shared, unspoken norms)
Research shows that leadership mindsets and behaviours shape a culture but equally, that group dynamics and operational mechanics (structures, processes, information flows and reward mechanisms) help maintain it – either positively, or negatively.
So what type of environment allows a toxic leader to thrive?
The toxic triangle
For destructive leaders to stay in power, psychologists have found that two contributing factors are needed: susceptible followers and a conducive environment. Together, these three elements – toxic leadership, unchallenging followers and a conducive environment form what is called the ‘toxic triangle’.
Does the Toxic Triangle mean to lay blame with employees? Absolutely not. But this broader, more holistic view is important to remind us that to combat toxic leadership we need to look beyond the individual leader’s behaviour and ensure that there are enough diverse, challenging voices around the table and that there are sufficient checks on their power in the company.
How to transform a toxic culture
Reading all the above you would be forgiven for thinking that getting rid of toxic elements in leadership and culture is almost impossible. And while there are no ‘quick fixes’ and transforming culture does require a holistic approach, it is possible to do something about it. Here’s where to start:
- Hire leaders whose values and leadership style aligns with the mission of the company and the culture you want to create.
- Make sure headhunters and recruiters understand the desired culture of the company and know how to recognize leaders that fit to it.
- Perform regular 360 degree evaluations on C-suite leaders to be clear on their strengths and possible derailers. Have the assessments done by an external third party instead of HR, who may have a vested interest in how the leader is perceived.
- Adam Grant said “If you want to become a great leader, have a good coach”. Make sure leaders have ongoing coaching and self-development programs to help them evolve their leadership positively.
- Train employees to identify toxic behaviours as well as when, where and how to speak up to address it. Teaching and supporting employees to set healthy boundaries helps prevent a toxic culture from developing.
- Ensure there are open communication channels and safe support structures that employees can use when they feel threatened by a leader.
- Assess the current culture to clearly understand what individual and collective mindsets, behaviours and governance structures/processes are creating and maintaining it.
- Clearly define the desired culture and identify the key aspects that must be addressed as priority in order to work toward this culture.
- Make transparency part of the desired culture and make it normal and acceptable for people to call out destructive behaviour.
- Regularly track and report progress toward the desired culture to keep accountability for demonstrating the right mindsets and behaviours high.
Employees today are more vocal than ever before about what they will and will not tolerate in the workplace and their leaders. Respectful leadership and a positive, empowering culture have become non-negotiables.
If there is suspicion of toxic leadership behaviour, we must have the ethical fortitude and courage to draw a line in the sand and address it. What if we don’t? The reputational damage will spread like an oil stain, as a quick search on Glassdoor will tell you, as will the organization’s ability to be nimble, course-correct and thrive in difficult times. And what about the frayed, disillusioned employees who once loved working for the company and gladly gave their brainpower and energy to help advance its goals? Based on the many conversations I’ve had – and the research confirms it – their mind is already out the door. It’s just a question of time until their body leaves too.