5 Toxic leadership behaviors and how to address them

Written by Dan Hughes, Director of International R&D

The pandemic and the shift to hybrid or remote working models have increased attention on the employee experience. Many people feel engaged, satisfied with their job, and fundamentally happy at work. However, in Talogy’s recent international research study on leadership, we found that 4 out of 10 employees did not report a good employee experience in their workplace. So, how can organizations improve this?

Leaders set the tone for the employee experience

The climate that leaders create at work plays a key role in a positive employee experience.

Scientific evidence shows that the quality of a person’s relationship with their leader influences their motivation, job satisfaction, commitment to the organization, and feelings of trust and empowerment. In turn this leads to better job performance, as well as people going beyond what is required or expected of them (organizational citizenship).

Toxic leaders have the opposite effect. Research studies show that destructive leadership is associated with employees feeling negative and unhappy at work. Beyond this, those that exhibit toxic leadership behaviors can also harm performance and commitment, as well as making people more likely to want to leave the organization.

Five key toxic leadership behaviors to look out for

Which toxic leadership behaviors have the biggest impact on the employee experience? As part of our international research study, we asked 1077 employees across 21 countries for their views.

Specifically, we asked employees to select their top five leadership behaviors which had the most negative impact on their employee experience. Here are the five most frequently chosen toxic leadership behaviors across all 1077 employees we surveyed:

Employee view
  1. Being aggressive, demeaning, or intimidating – 64%
  2. Micromanaging or being over-controlling – 52%
  3. Lying or being unethical – 43%
  4. Playing internal politics and focusing on self-interest – 37%
  5. Setting unrealistic goals or expectations – 36%

Leaders who act aggressively create a climate of fear, where employees are afraid to speak up and raise issues or concerns. This is bad for the organization because psychological safety at work is important for driving collaboration, creativity, and shared learning.

Micro-managing leaders are unwilling to delegate and empower their teams. They control all decisions and restrict employees’ freedom to choose the best approach to achieving goals. This reduces employees’ feelings of autonomy and in turn their intrinsic motivation.

Leaders who habitually lie and act unethically as well as focus on their own self-interest over the needs of their team destroy trust with employees. This leaves people on high alert and feeling constantly concerned, because they know their leader will not act in the team’s best interests.

Finally, leaders who set unrealistic goals or expectations leave employees feeling they will never succeed. For goals to be motivating, they must be stretching but achievable. Unreachable goals reduce motivation and can lead to employees disengaging from what the organization is trying to achieve.

How to address toxic leadership

Here are five strategies that organizations can take to reduce toxic leadership and help build a more positive employee experience:

  • Start at the top: Climate begins at the top of the organization. Senior leaders need to act as role models for positive leadership, hold themselves accountable for their impact on others, and be receptive to feedback on their own behavior.
  • Don’t ignore the signs: Organizations should pay close attention to signs of toxic leadership, such as employees not speaking up about problems, underperforming teams, lack of collaboration, high attrition rates, and high levels of sickness absences.
  • Ask employees often: Collect metrics and data analytics from teams regularly about their leader’s behavior and how the team is feeling, using tools such as climate or engagement surveys and 360 feedback. Ensure that leaders receive actionable feedback about how they are doing so that they understand clearly where they need to improve.
  • Call out bad behavior: Leaders need to create a culture where poor behavior is called out and addressed directly and promptly, rather than being avoided or tolerated. Individual leaders need to have the courage to raise these concerns if they see examples of toxic leadership by their peers, and organizations should support this.
  • Develop leaders’ emotional intelligence (EI): Emotionally intelligent leaders tend to adopt leadership styles that foster a positive employee experience (e.g., authentic leadership and servant leadership), and have higher levels of job satisfaction in their teams. Leaders can develop their EI by improving their self-awareness and awareness of others, as well as consciously managing their attitudes and behavior so they are being interpersonally effective.

Leading in the future world of work

As the world of work continues to change, the role and attributes of leaders continues to be debated and reviewed.

What are the most important changes and opportunities brought on by Covid-19, resulting in the biggest global leadership challenge in decades?

Download our research report now and explore our insights into four critical leadership themes:

  • The impact of leadership on organizational performance
  • The impact of leadership on the employee experience
  • Lessons learned from leadership in the pandemic
  • Future of leadership – critical challenges and responses
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