Leadership: How to Spot a Toxic Boss

By Patricia Wallington
Sat, April 15, 2006


Working for some leaders is as painful as taking a full dose of poison. Their behavior is so bad it is toxic to their organizations. You know the type: More of a despot than a leader, he pits employees against each other and paralyzes the organization with fear.

Sometime during your career you may have encountered such a toxic leader, or maybe you see signs now of one emerging in your company (hopefully you aren’t one yourself). Here’s how to spot one, how to protect yourself and your team from his venom, and how to nip an emerging toxic leader in the bud.

The Markings of a Toxic Boss

Toxic leaders share some common traits. They often have a rigid commitment to an idealized goal. They view challenges to their vision as akin to treason. Either you’re with such a leader, unquestioningly, 100 percent, or you’re the enemy.

The poisonous leader is arrogant; in her mind, she is always right, and she takes input only from a limited group of yes-men and -women. Her chosen few get information, but no one else does, and so there is no discussion about the work being done.

Retribution from such a leader is swift for those not aggressively supportive of his decisions. He treats employees coldly, even cruelly. He assigns blame without regard to responsibility, and takes all the credit for himself. I once had such a boss, and he gave me a new definition of shared risk: If something I did was successful, he took the credit. If it wasn’t, I got the blame. Painful as this was, I learned a lot during his short tenure. He was my first negative role model. Fortunately, I was able to move on, and he left the company.

Why leaders behave this way is the subject of much speculation. Some people attribute it to greed, not just for money but for power or recognition. Incompetence can also drive the toxic leader’s behavior, as his fear of being “found out” influences his interactions with others.

The Toll of Venomous Leadership

Poisonous leaders sap the strength of their organizations. Their demand for loyalty causes employees to fear whether they are doing something the leader will deem to be wrong. In this demoralizing and dehumanizing atmosphere, the toxic leader may drive the organization into paralysis.

Employees will stop thinking creatively; their productivity will decline, and they will miss their goals. In extreme cases, employees desperate to please their leader and keep their jobs will slide into unethical behavior or outright corruption.

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