Here’s how to identify (and avoid becoming) a toxic leader.
1. Toxic managers are physically (and mentally) absent.
Managers need to be present and attentive to the needs of their staff and understand the roles of their employees. Toxic managers are either absent physically (never in the office), mentally (“checked-out”), or both. As a result, absent managers fail to fully understand what their staff does on a daily basis and are unaware of the toxic dynamics developing under their watch. Most harmfully, without guidance or leadership, staff members are forced to make important managerial decisions themselves in order to keep an organization or project running.
2. They take no responsibility for poor decisions.
Whether a poor decision was made impulsively, because of an emotional outburst, or out of sheer incompetence, toxic managers take no responsibility. At best, they make excuses for themselves (“I didn’t send out that announcement, because I was on vacation last week”) or will justify and defend their poor decision any way they can to avoid admitting their mistake. At worst, toxic managers will blame someone else for the fallout of a decision or point their finger at their staff — the very people that the manager is supposed to lead and support.
3. They avoid conflict at all costs.
Successful managers know enough about their staff, both individually and collectively, to know how to tactfully handle hurt feelings and other issues that may result from a conflict. While inept managers may avoid having difficult conversations out of their own fear or insecurity, toxic managers refuse to engage in conflicts because they either don’t have the time, or because they lack the interest to resolve difficult situations. As a result, staff members are often forced to “bury” hurt feelings or frustration, which can lead to resentment or disillusionment down the road.
4. They don’t communicate.
While a manager may not want to discuss the reasons for every thought process or decision he or she makes, having some level of transparency is crucial to a well-functioning team. When toxic managers neglect or refuse to communicate with their staff, employees often “fill in the gaps” of missing information through speculation and gossip. A lack of information often causes a duplication of efforts, and may even cause important tasks to “slip through the cracks,” as team members do not understand what their peers are doing.
5. They don’t plan.
One of a manager’s primary duties is to develop and articulate a strategic plan to achieve the goals for an organization or project. Toxic managers either don’t understand the need for a strategic plan, or worse, don’t think it important. Without clear processes in place, staff members must react to crises as they emerge, and are limited in their ability to proactively address problems before they become full-on “fires.” Since staff are unable to anticipate what each day will bring, uncertainty and unpredictability create a stressful, anxiety-ridden workplace that takes a toll on morale and the functioning of the organization.
6. They only focus on short-term “optics.”
For toxic managers, all that matters is that the organization appears to be running smoothly from the outside, and that they “look good” in their position. However, just because something looks good on the surface doesn’t mean the foundation isn’t crumbling. By only focusing on the short-term gains, profits, or payoffs, instead of deeper, long-term improvements, staff members are directed to adopt temporary “band-aid” solutions, rather than address the root causes of organizational problems to implement sustainable solutions.
7. They adopt “black and white” thinking.
Good managers possess the ability to make difficult “yes or no” decisions when needed, but toxic managers take “black and white” thinking to a new level. The “you’re either with us or against us” mentality discourages constructive disagreement among staff members, and in extreme cases, the toxic manager can end up demonizing outspoken staff members who challenge the status quo. Effective managers are able to occupy a “gray” space and find nuance in decisions and perspectives. Toxic managers adopt a “my way or the highway” approach that suppresses innovation.
8. They show favoritism.
Toxic managers promote a culture of favoritism among their employees, often protecting or promoting those who reinforce their own power, or in the worst cases adopt “quid pro quo” arrangements with others. Not only are these arrangements unfair and unethical, these types of undeserved promotions and special treatment can cause resentment among those not in the toxic manager’s orbit and kill staff morale. Even worse, if a manager’s “favorites” are promoted into positions they are unqualified for, those individuals often perpetuate a culture of poor management and leadership that further undermines the organization.
9. They ignore turnover.
There are a number of reasons why someone might choose to leave an organization, but toxic managers don’t try to understand the reasons for employee turnover. Are employees feeling underpaid and undervalued? Are they seeking new professional development opportunities that the organization can’t offer? Or is the organization just experiencing a “natural” bout of employee turnover? Toxic managers choose not to investigate, and in the worst cases, they adopt black and white thinking to demonize outgoing employees as not being worthy or committed to the organization in the first place.
10. They live in denial.
Any individual who wants to become a better manager can put in work to alter his or her toxic habits. However, toxic managers refuse to acknowledge that any of these behaviors exist, or that they are detrimental to the organization. Above all else, toxic managers live in denial of their own shortcomings and their contributions to a toxic workplace environment.
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