When is leadership toxic? Brighten Project Leadership development for wildly ambitious leaders

When is leadership toxic?

thought leadership Sep 24, 2023


When is Leadership Toxic? Understanding and Addressing Destructive Leadership Patterns

We often celebrate leaders for their strength, vision, and ability to inspire. But when does strong leadership cross the line into something detrimental? With increasing discussions on workplace culture, mental health, and organisational dynamics, the term "toxic leadership" is one that I'm sure we've all heard time and time again - it's definitely one of those phrases that gets thrown around A LOT. Studies show that over 50% of employees have left a job due to a bad manager or leader, and that poor leaders tend to have three to four times more people "quiet quitting" in their teams than effective leaders. But what exactly is toxic leadership, and how can we recognise and address it?


Defining Toxic Leadership

At its core, toxic leadership is characterised by behaviours that harm and belittle employees, either directly or indirectly. One distinction that I think is really important is that we're focusing on the IMPACT of the actions rather than the INTENTION. Sure, the intention might be really positive but if it's landing in a way that's damaging the team or moral or performance than it needs to be addressed. This is where that self awareness of a leader is 👏CRU👏CIAL. A toxic leader knowingly or unknowingly harms their employees and prioritises their ego and personal agendas whereas an "authentic leadership style" focuses on fairness, transparency and openness.


Signs of Toxic Leadership

  • Micromanagement: A classic sign of a toxic leader is an inability to trust employees to do their jobs, leading to over-control and stifling creativity. This can be disguised as wanting to be involved, or wanting to help, but what the leader often doesn't realise is that it makes their team feel like there's no breathing room. There's no room to grow, no room to think, no room to create because the leader is always there, reading everything, checking everything - often jumping in too early and stifling peoples capabilities. It reads as a complete lack of trust. When I'm working with "recovering micro-managers", the question that we often talk about is "why pay these people to do their jobs if you're just going to do it for them?".  The answer to that question often tells me how close or far they are from understanding the impact they have on their team - a response of "yes why do I have to do their jobs?" lets me know they still think they need to micro-manage, a response of "I should let them do their jobs" is when the leader is starting to realise that you bring in smart people and then get out of their way. 

  • Lack of Empathy: Empathy is crucial in leadership. Toxic leaders often disregard employee feelings, leading to resentment and low morale. Or you may also see this as being an overconfidence in their empathy skill, for example a leader that consistently incorrectly understands someone's emotional mindset, or that projects their own emotional mindset onto others and assumes because they themselves think or feel a certain way, that's how others also feel. The challenge with this is the "blind spots" that it creates. An authentic leader needs to build their EQ skills constantly.

  • Arrogance and Hubris: A belief that they can do no wrong. This attitude prevents growth, learning, and can lead to misguided decisions. This can look like a defensive response to feedback, or someone that disregards other people's ideas, someone that constantly thinks they have the best idea, or perhaps a leader that just always talks first and talks over the top of others. Good leaders value feedback. Toxic leaders see it as a threat.

  • Promotion of Fear: Instead of inspiring teams, these leaders use fear to get results. This can lead to a culture of anxiety and high turnover. A toxic leader might push too directly in a meeting, they may be known for reprimanding their team over small/petty issues or might be unyielding in the face of issues they don't understand or agree with. The challenge here is that it's our job as leaders to create the environment that empowers our team to do their BEST WORK. Creating a space that doesn't feel safe is counter-productive to that. 

  • Unpredictable Behaviour: This can leave teams walking on eggshells, unsure of how their leader will react. Consistency creates stability and psychological safety. If the team doesn't know if you're going to rip a piece of work apart, or completely love it - that's an issue. This goes back to that "creating a safe space" goal, as leaders, if you're not consistent in your emotions, approach and treatment of people it doesn't help others to know what to expect when working with you. The only time I think there is an exception for this is when you're making significant changes to your behaviour style, ideally for the better, and you may surprise your team by responding in a more supportive, effective way - BUT you then create the consistency and security by continuing to respond in this new, better way.

  • Isolation: Discouraging collaboration and teamwork leads to division and stagnation. A toxic leader can see teamwork and collaboration as a threat, often because they know that if people work together without them, it may expose their poor leadership or their own individual poor results. They may also view teams and groups as a threat to their own personal power. This sucks for teams because you want and need a leader that brings people together, that sees the power in collaboration and encourages it. Teams perform their best when there's a sense of trust and if your leader erodes or encourages behaviours that erode trust it's not going to be a fun place to work. 


Implications of Toxic Leadership

Beyond decreased morale, toxic leadership can result in tangible organisational problems. High turnover rates, burnout, reduced productivity, and even health issues among employees are common repercussions - AND, once you get a reputation for bad leadership it's really hard to attract top talent to this impacts your business commercially with a lasting impact. Having a poor leader has also been shown to bleed into people's personal lives and researchers have found that people with a toxic leader are more likely to experience clinical depression and other serious mental health challenges.



Can you *fix* Toxic Leadership?

If YOU'RE the toxic leader - you can fix it if you want to. You'll need to focus on self awareness humility, feedback and coaching. 

  • Self-awareness and Reflection: Leaders should introspect on their actions and motivations. Are you leading with integrity and empathy? Do you ask people how they feel or do you tell them?

  • Seek Feedback: Constructive feedback can be a mirror reflecting true leadership behaviours. Leaders should actively seek it out.

  • Continuous Learning: Embrace leadership training, workshops, and seminars. Evolving as a leader is an ongoing journey.

  • Leadership Coaching: Engage with a mentor or coach to refine leadership skills.


If you're being MANAGED by a toxic leader, you need to reflect and then make some serious decisions around your wellbeing and your future.


If you have toxic leaders in your team that report to you - I want you to start having some frank conversations and put some self awareness, feedback, and coaching tactics into play. I also want you to reflect on your own leadership. Where is your teams toxic traits coming from? Are you role modeling toxic behaviours that your team is copying? 


Leadership holds the power to either build or break teams. As we navigate the evolving landscapes of modern workplaces, it's imperative to cultivate leadership styles that uplift, inspire, and nurture. New leaders, especially, have the opportunity to set positive precedents for the future. Let's ensure we're paving the way for growth, collaboration, and mutual respect.


Good luck!






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