Toxic Leadership: 5 Ways to Identify a Bad Leader

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Let’s be honest, we’ve all crossed paths with a toxic leader in our careers at some point. Unfortunately, while some toxic leaders don’t even bother to hide their behaviour, some know very well how to conceal their true selves behind a strong-built facade. The latter is the most dangerous of the two.

They’re the ones you see managing the executive team well and playing the ‘I care about my staff and their wellbeing’ card. The ones who act like they’re all righteous, but behind closed doors, when no one is looking, off comes their mask, and out come the claws. 

This is where they belittle their staff, make unfair demands on them, and expect their staff to bow down to them like their god’s gift to the world. 

I had two leaders like this, one who would message you when you had your status as ‘Busy’ on Teams to ask if “you really were busy,” or if nature called, would time how long you took in the bathroom! 

The other asked why I took leave when a family member was extremely ill and in intensive care. Her argument: “My personal assistant has an ill father, and they still come to work.” 

Yes, b***, how dare I not come to work when my family member is fighting for life. I can’t imagine anything better than coming to work during such a time. 

A lot of toxic leaders, like the two above, often share the same common harmful traits, making it easy to identify them in the workplace –

1. Lack of Empathy

No surprise here, but most toxic leaders have a severe lack of empathy towards their staff. These staff members are usually the ones who have to report to them, not the ones that they have to report to. They rarely consider the personal challenges and concerns of those they lead, making employees feel undervalued and unsupported.

2. Playing favouritism

Toxic leaders only care about what’s in it for them. This means they only care about managing those at the higher executive leadership level. Why? Well, because who else is going to give them a lovely pay rise or promote them? 

They have zero care in the world for the staff who actually have to report to them unless it involves making them look good. This favouritism can lead to resentment and conflict within their teams and erode trust in their leadership. 

3. Micromanaging

Toxic leaders, more often than not, micromanage their teams, showing a lack of trust in their employees’ abilities. Take the earlier example about timing how long staff members are in the bathroom or watching their online Teams status like a hawk. 

Which, by the way, shows how you, as a leader, must have nothing better to do with your day. Unfortunately, such behaviour towards staff only stifles their creativity but also creates an atmosphere of anxiety amongst team members.

Great leaders are willing to sacrifice the numbers to save the people. Poor leaders sacrifice the people to save the numbers. – Simon Sinek

4. Resistance to feedback

Good leaders are open to feedback and actively seek opportunities for improvement. Toxic leaders, however, resist feedback and view any critique as a threat to their authority. This closed-minded approach stops the opportunity for team growth and innovation.  

5. Inconsistent behaviour

Inconsistent leadership is another common trait of toxic leaders. Toxic leaders display erratic behaviour and get caught up on things that carry very little or are of no importance. Take the same leader I mentioned in my earlier examples, who became obsessed with email signatures. 

As most of you would know, when you work across the same organisation, everyone has the same branding in their email signatures. Not rocket science, right?! Yet, for this particular toxic leader, they kept bringing up the topic of email signatures. 

Even after we told this leader that we all have identical email signatures across the organisation, they wanted us to call up various areas and ask them what they had in their email signature. 

When we said this would be of no value, given every area across the same organisation has the SAME email signature branding, they became erratic. Behaviour like this only amplifies the lack of competency of such a leader and only breeds discord across a team.

If you work in an organisation with a leader who displays such behaviours, the best advice I can give you is to get out of there. Do not wait for them ‘to change’ or for ‘things to get better.’ Toxic leaders rarely change their behaviours. 

Sure, they may get a warning or, if you’re lucky, get dismissed by HR. Still, unfortunately, there are many cases where, even with the many complaints about the toxic leader in question, they still get to hang around and continue to behave in such a manner. 

For your wellbeing and mental health, if you have a leader who displays any of the toxic traits mentioned above, it’s time to move on to greener pastures.

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