By Rhett Power | Organic
By Rhett Power | Organic
Leaders play a crucial role in defining and articulating the values, practices, and beliefs that will support the company cultures they aim to create.
And leaders can fail at maintaining these cultures for various reasons. Perhaps they have a case of unchecked narcissism—they place their personal needs for attention, admiration, and acceptance above their people and the company mission.
Or maybe their leadership style is to instill fear—they lead with interactions that make people feel unsafe and fearful at work. These leaders tend to feel big by making others feel small.
“Fear of competitors, market changes, and obsolesce can be motivating,” says Chris Evans, CEO of Barefoot, a brand experience agency on a mission to end meaningless moments between consumers and brands, “but if one is going to profile a common enemy, it should be outside the organization and something that is ultimately motivating in achieving the mission.”
Other traits that signal a toxic leader can include arrogance, failure to listen and receive feedback, or decision-making motivated by self-interest.
Here are four ways leaders can—intentionally or not—poison a company’s culture.
1. They are ignoring the problem.
Toxic leaders will avoid addressing employees acting against the company’s culture. You will see them let certain behaviors slide over and over again. Or maybe they are just naïve and unaware. Regardless, keeping an eye out for this behavior will help you identify a misaligned leader.
When you see this happening, pull them aside and tell them what you have noticed. If they are unaware, gently bring their behavior to their attention. If they know, ask why they have been letting things slide and brainstorm ways they can address employees and take care of issues before they get worse. Oftentimes, leaders can feel ill-equipped to address a problem and need guidance on conflict resolution.
2. They are creating a culture of cronyism.
If you notice an atmosphere of exclusivity, you may have a toxic leader. Sometimes leaders can get comfortable with certain employees over others and consciously (or subconsciously) contribute to cliques and exclusivity. Some leaders even use company values to create “in groups” and “out groups,” which is never okay.
“Even with stated values, beliefs, and practices, there should be plenty of room for diverse backgrounds, experiences, and points of view,” says Evans.
When leaders place importance on hierarchy and promote their friends or former colleagues above others who are equally qualified, it creates a cycle of “in group/out group” behavior and exclusivity. As a result, the “in group” is often given preferential treatment and held to different standards. This is never healthy, even for people in the “in group.”
Positive workplace cultures seek out diverse voices and perspectives, fostering openness and equity. If you notice the opposite of this happening in your workplace, point out this behavior in your leader and remind them why inclusivity is important not only for the people, but the overall health of the workplace. Give them specific action steps to take moving forward such as encouraging 1-on-1s with newer employees or sparking conversation with less-talkative employees during work events.
3. They enable workplace bullying.
When leaders enable exclusive behavior, bullying can occur. Workplace bullying is the mistreatment of one or more employees by another employee.
Examples may include not inviting certain people to a work happy hour, purposefully assigning mundane tasks to someone repeatedly, changing deadlines unfairly, or denying people access to certain programs for no reason.
If you see this happening or hear of complaints, always directly address the person responsible. Consider group trainings on what is and isn’t okay in the workplace and how to address bullying. This will give your employees more freedom to bring this behavior to your attention so you can stop it early.
4. They are micromanaging.
How do you spot a micromanager? Their workers are experiencing burnout and distress.
Micromanagers are leaders who try to control every aspect—no matter how small—of the company, project, activity, or whatever it may be. Worker burnout and high-strung emotions will likely increase when bullying, micromanaging, and exclusivity occurs. With toxic leaders, they may unknowingly create unmanageable and unsustainable workloads for the employees. These unhealthy workloads can also contribute to disengagement and burnout.
If you suspect a leader is micromanaging, there may be a trust or control issue at play. Ask them why they have a hard time trusting their employees and start at the root.
The truth is, all organizations will encounter leaders who exhibit toxic behavior at some point—that is almost a given. The key is to establish accountability now so you can ultimately help those leaders grow, develop, and change for the better.