Leadership Trauma

The Psychology Behind Toxic Leadership and Its Effects

Nov 30, -0001

Toxic leaders can have a devastating impact on individuals and organizations. Learn about the psychology behind toxic leadership and its effects in this article.

What is toxic leadership?

Toxic leadership is a manifestation of leadership behavior that involves abusive, manipulative, and controlling behavior. These leaders often prioritize their own interests over the well-being of their team or organization, and may use fear, intimidation, or coercion to achieve their goals. Political scientist Marcia Lynn Whicker coined the term 'toxic leader' in her 1996 book, Toxic Leaders: When Organizations Go BadToxic leaders can create a toxic work environment that can lead to decreased productivity, high turnover rates, and even legal issues. It's important to recognize and address toxic leadership in order to create a healthy and productive work environment.

Idea in Brief

Leadership is a crucial aspect of any organization, but when leaders become toxic, it can have devastating effects on the people they lead. Toxic leaders are those who abuse their power, manipulate their followers, and prioritize their own interests over the well-being of the group. They create a toxic work environment that can lead to high turnover rates, low morale, and decreased productivity. It is important for organizations to recognize and address toxic leadership in order to create a healthy and productive workplace.

Toxic leaders can be identified by their serious personality disorders, which can include pathological narcissism, manic-depression, passive-aggressiveness, and emotional disconnection. Unfortunately, when these individuals are placed in positions of power, they often create dysfunctional organizations that negatively impact everyone involved. This can lead to a miserable work environment and decreased productivity.

The impact of toxic leadership on individuals and organizations.

The impact of toxic leadership can be devastating for both individuals and organizations. Employees may experience increased stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as physical health problems such as headaches and stomach issues. They may also feel demotivated, disengaged, and less committed to their work. This can lead to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and higher turnover rates. For organizations, the costs of toxic leadership can include decreased profitability, damage to reputation, and legal liabilities. It is important for organizations to recognize and address toxic leadership in order to create a healthy and productive work environment.

The traits and behaviors of toxic leaders.

Toxic leaders often exhibit a range of negative traits and behaviors that can have a significant impact on their team or organization. These may include narcissism, arrogance, lack of empathy, micromanagement, and a focus on short-term gains over long-term success. They may also engage in bullying, harassment, or other forms of abusive behavior towards their subordinates. These traits and behaviors can create a toxic work environment that can lead to decreased morale, increased stress, and a lack of trust in leadership.

How to recognize and address toxic leadership.

Recognizing toxic leadership can be difficult, as toxic leaders often use manipulation and intimidation tactics to maintain their power. However, some signs of toxic leadership include a lack of transparency, favoritism, micromanagement, and a lack of accountability. It is important for organizations to have clear policies and procedures in place to address toxic leadership, such as anonymous reporting systems and regular employee feedback surveys. Additionally, providing leadership training and coaching can help prevent toxic behaviors from developing in the first place.

1. Frequent lying or inconsistent expectations

Toxic leaders can have a detrimental effect on the workplace, creating an environment of dishonesty and mistrust. When employees are not given access to the truth, it can be difficult to understand the dynamics of the workplace and make informed decisions. This can lead to a breakdown in communication and ultimately harm the productivity and success of the organization.

Toxic leaders can be manipulative and deceitful, often using tactics to shift blame onto others. For instance, a toxic manager may give an employee a tight deadline for a project, then turn around and blame them for not completing it on time. They may even go so far as to claim that they had given a different deadline, gaslighting the employee and causing confusion and frustration. This kind of behavior can be damaging to both individuals and organizations as a whole.

Toxic leaders often use gaslighting as a tactic to manipulate and control their subordinates. Gaslighting involves making someone doubt their own perceptions and memories, often leading to confusion and self-doubt. This type of psychological manipulation can be damaging to individuals and organizations, as it undermines trust and creates a toxic work environment.

2. Doesn't listen to feedback

Toxic leaders are often closed-minded and resistant to constructive criticism, making it difficult for them to learn and grow. While everyone has room for improvement, toxic leaders may struggle to acknowledge their own shortcomings and may be unwilling to listen to feedback from others. This can create a toxic work environment and lead to negative outcomes for both the leader and their team.

Toxic leaders are known for their inability to listen to the concerns of their team members. This not only hinders the team's ability to improve, but it also keeps the leader from growing and adapting to new situations. The courage, humility and discipline that according to leadership thinker Marshall Goldsmith is needed for a great leader to become even better is lacking in almost every aspect.

Toxic leaders can also be identified by their inability to accept criticism and their tendency to take things personally. Even when presented with valid concerns or suggestions, they refuse to budge on their own ideas and may even become defensive or hostile. This behavior can create a toxic work environment and lead to decreased morale and productivity among team members. And why is it toxic? Because people interact energetically as well as behaviorally, and it doesn't take more than days or weeks to have a significant impact both visibly and invisibly on everyone in the workplace or boardroom.

3. Arrogance

Leaders who exhibit toxic behavior often have a distorted sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy for others. They tend to believe that their opinions and decisions are always correct, making it challenging for them to accept constructive criticism or feedback from others. It is for a reason that in this aspect narcissism and narcissistic personality disorders are much discussed.

Toxic leaders are known for their authoritarian style of leadership, where they demand complete obedience and loyalty from their team members.

4. Places excessive importance on hierarchy

Toxic leaders often rely on the power of hierarchy to maintain control over their team. By using their position and authority within the business, they can manipulate and intimidate their subordinates, creating a toxic work environment that can have negative effects on productivity and morale. Toxic leaders prioritize maintaining their power and the hierarchy they have established. They will take measures to ensure that this structure remains intact, as it is crucial to their sense of control and authority.

Toxic leaders often exhibit controlling behavior, such as shutting down initiatives that would allow their team members to be more independent and make their own decisions. This can create a work environment where team members feel undervalued and disempowered. All of this shows that much is going on in the inner game of the leader, who lacks trust and operates from an inner realm of fear and mistrust.

6. Lacks true confidence

In that aspect it is important to notice that toxic leaders often exhibit behavior that stems from a severe lack of self-confidence. In an attempt to compensate for their insecurities, they may resort to toxic behavior that can harm their team or organization. It's important to recognize these traits and address them in order to promote a healthy and productive work environment. While a lack of confidence is no problem for self-development or leadership development, it truly becomes a problem when this struggle is not resolved by the leader himself (or herself!), but projected unto important others - the same is in a romantic relationship with an abusive partner who suffers from unprocessed emotional wounds or attachment traumas that go unhealed.

7. Incompetent at their job

Toxic leaders may have a strong belief in their own infallibility, but in reality, their decision-making abilities are often flawed. Their leadership style can lead to poor decision-making and ultimately hinder their effectiveness in their role. In the end toxic leaders tend to have a negative impact on their team's development, performance, health and happiness.

8. Self-interested

Leaders who exhibit toxic behavior tend to prioritize their own personal gain and success above the well-being and growth of their team members. Here again we see the overly inflated narcissistic tendency to make the own ego important, and lose the connection to the greater whole of people involved. It therefore not only shows destructiveness but also disconnectedness (see this article on the Devilish D's, summarizing the most important trauma patterns in personal and business life).

The Remedies

Toxic leaders can be a challenge to work with, but an executive coach can help individuals navigate their behaviors. It's important for coaches to recognize the signs of different pathologies, such as narcissism, manic-depression, and passive-aggressiveness, and tailor their approach accordingly. Therefore if coaching progression is challenging or requires more experience with pathological behavior than a coach can offer, a psychologist or psychotherapist can be a much needed addition or alternative. Narcissists may have fragile self-esteem and need careful building up, while manic-depressives may need a combination of therapy, medication, and facing reality. Passive-aggressives can benefit from learning how to express anger in a healthy way, and disconnected individuals may benefit from exploring and describing their emotional experiences to improve their relationships with others.

The Bottom Line

Toxic leaders can create a work environment that is detrimental to the mental health and well-being of their employees. The behavior of senior executives can either foster growth and productivity or create a toxic workplace where everyone is unhappy. The mental health of executives plays a significant role in how they use their power. Leaders who are sound and stable tend to build companies where employees understand the rules and can focus on performing their jobs well. However, if a boss has a warped psychological makeup, it can negatively impact the business plans, ideas, interactions, and even the structure of the organization itself.

Toxic leaders exhibit a range of pathologies that go beyond occasional feelings of depression. While depression is a common human experience, it does not necessarily require special intervention unless it becomes chronic or severe. The pathologies of toxic leaders, however, are more pervasive and can have a significant impact on their leadership style and the well-being of those around them.

Toxic leaders come in many forms, and not all of them fit neatly into a specific category. While most bosses are not mentally ill, a significant number of senior executives exhibit traits of personality disorders. Even emotionally healthy executives may display some of the characteristics associated with toxic leadership, which must be addressed in a similar manner, though not necessarily through medication or formal therapy. It is important to recognize and address these behaviors in order to create a healthy and productive work environment.

Please remember

Although toxic leadership remains oftentimes underexposed and can be a serious issue in any organization, it is crucially important to remember that these behaviors can be addressed and managed. With the right interventions and support, even leaders with difficult personalities or disorders can learn to become more effective and positive influences in the workplace. Most important here is the will to change, since the toxic behavioral repertoire offers support and reinforcement to the leader, making it unattractive to give it up unless forced to from inside (personal crises or transformation) or outside (social pressure from within the organization).

The big question that needs to be answered is whether the toxicity can be dissolved in water (leadership development) or an antidote (counterforce) or amputation (let 'm go!) is needed. All of this preferably under the guidance of an experienced coach or therapist with a clear understanding of manipulation, pathology and invisible suffering.