We've all experienced varying levels of toxicity in the workplace. Poor leaders are too often put in positions of power, dragging and prodding subordinates from atop the throne.
The three types of toxic leadership below are often ignored and dismissed, and they blur the line between functioning and non-functioning. Autonomy, creativity, and innovation take the biggest hits when poor leadership is left unchecked. A directly actionable event can be rare, leaving HR and senior leadership little ability to act and remove them.
Some people can still be productive under toxic leadership, but they will rarely reach their full potential, and therefore the company will never reach its full potential either. Companies and individuals will miss out on unlocked talent and growth.
Toxic leaders can take many forms, but before we dive into the top three, let's first uncover how they made it to the throne in the first place.
Rise to Power
Companies all have one goal in common: They want to grow and become more profitable. One downside to focusing too much on this endgame is that performance can be seen as an indicator of ability to lead.
The common misconception is that a high performer will automatically make a high performing leader. But it's quite the opposite. The ability to be a leader, instill trust, and motivate others to become better or stretch their potential has little or nothing to do with the skills required to be a good individual contributor.
Another fallacy is that eventually becoming a manager is the right trajectory for everyone's career. Societal norms have programmed us to believe that after we master our current role, the next obvious step in our own career progression is management. For some people, it can be. But much more thought and self-reflection should go into this major step before it's taken blindly.
Let's take a look at the top three toxic leaders.
Toxic Leader #1: The Best Friend
They believe that the way to winning is through friendship. "If they like me, they will work harder for me," is a typical thought process. They overly focus on creating personal relationships, and then attempt to leverage those to gain buy-in from others whom they have not been successful connecting with on their own.
Often times they try to share personal opinions or thoughts in a attempt to gain trust and build a fake connection with the employee. This is the same person who will tell you in a 1:1 meeting something they want kept confidential or "between you and me", when the objective had nothing to do with the topic, but rather was meant to extend trust and create an ally. "I shared with you, now you should share with me."
The "best friend" is nothing but that. The biggest issues you'll run into with this manager are widely ranging from blatant favoritism, unnecessary comparing of team members, and overstepping boundaries. Just like we saw in the movie Mean Girls, these leaders thrive on manipulation, gossip, and things completely disconnected from the success of the team itself. The actions of "The Best Friend" have little to nothing to do with a creation of a high performing team, and more to do with being liked.
Toxic Leader #2: The Micro-Manager
The micro-manager thinks they know best and always wants the final say. They believe nothing gets done right unless they're involved. They believe that the position they've been bestowed with was designed for control, because they earned it. You'll often see or hear things like, "Next time I need to be kept in the loop," or "I don't remember approving that."
These people also often create rules and regulations that confuse the team or are otherwise not necessary. These people often feel the need to change employee behavior to improve performance or control risk. They then put indirect motivation schemes or unnecessary bureaucracies in place to control behavior.
The drawbacks of "The Micro-Manager" can mostly be boiled down to a lack of autonomy. When free will and autonomy are eroded, motivation takes a hit. This causes a domino effect of performance dropping, and then the whole cycle begins anew. This cycle becomes frustrating and often results in lack of creativity and innovation: two traits that are vital in today's organizational success.
Toxic Leader #3: The Abuser
These people are unpredictable. One day they are cheerful and full of positivity, and the next they are noticeably angry and lashing out. They spend great deals of time creating a gap between them and their team, making it ever more clear that they are the one with power.
These are the leaders who will build up an exciting off-site event full of fun and cheer, then follow up immediately after the event with a barrage of insults come Monday morning, because performance is down.
These people are so blinded by power and control that they say wildly inappropriate things. They can be demeaning, disrespectful, or worse, sexually inappropriate in nature. They live by rules that seemingly only apply to everyone but them.
Unfortunately, these poor behaviors of the abuser are often unintentionally condoned. Because of their wild and unpredictable nature, many times employees will attempt to focus on the "good days," and chalk up the bad incidents to a bad day. Working under an abuser leads to loss of clarity, self-confidence, motivation, and trust.
Don't be "That Guy/Gal"
Being a leader is hard, and being responsible for the development of others is no small task. I believe no one sets out to be any of the above, but somewhere along the line they make some really poor choices that lead down this slippery slope. Not taking this honor seriously, paired with learned behaviors from other bad managers are major contributors to these situations. To make matters worse, it's easier to leverage a higher position to get things done, than to do it the right way. To put it simply, a lack of personal reflection can compound the development of poor leadership.
Stay tuned for my next article where we will outline some important tips to help you avoid these mistakes, and instead become a great leader, mentor, and coach.
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