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Healthy Workplace? Weed Out Toxic Leaders

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
September 26, 2022

Recently, we have seen the emergence of two phenomena: the “Great Resignation” and “Quiet Quitting.” The Great Resignation is characterized by employees leaving their jobs with little notice, even if they have no immediate prospects. Quiet Quitting is not actual quitting, but is instead being characterized by employees who do the minimum level of work. These phenomena are associated with toxic leadership which emerges like weeds if the work environment is not carefully tended.

What is a toxic leadership? There are diverse definitions, usually tied to specific dysfunctional behaviors. It might include minimal or faulty management styles so chaotic and disorganized that they create high levels of workplace stress and frustration. It might include abusive interpersonal styles noted for frequent demeaning remarks. It might include deliberate attempts to marginalize employees, refusing to provide support for performance improvement or professional development. It might take the form of micro-managing or restricting people to tasks far below their capacity. It might take the form of expectations to work far beyond established work norms with little to no additional compensation or benefit, or even recognition. The common theme across these diverse definitions is that the workplace becomes an unpleasant, stressful environment which employees wish to avoid. It is a setting marred by poor performance, motivation and morale—all due to toxic leadership.

Toxic environments do not just happen, but they emerge unintentionally. Toxic leaders develop over time. It is not a conscious choice. The archetypical toxic leader is perceived to have character flaws (the “Demon”). They lack interpersonal skills, are power hungry and are largely status driven. Much of the literature on toxic leadership focuses on this type. Others might become toxic due to a lack of confidence in their ability to perform well in their role. They have been promoted into a position where they are either ill-qualified, incapable of performing well or where they feel themselves unqualified even if they have the requisite technical skills. These become toxic leaders defensively, seeking to conceal their limited qualifications by diverting blame elsewhere (the “Cowardly Lion”). They attempt to replace their fear of failure with false bravado, demeaning others. Finally, there are those who were never trained or mentored in leadership. Unlike the others, these understand they are unprepared, but rather than acting defensively by lashing out, they attempt to copy leadership styles they have seen in the workplace or popular media, but they have chosen a poor example or have been incapable of duplicating a positive one (the “Mimic”).   

Public sector leaders at the mid- and upper levels must be alert to the emergence of toxic leaders, prepared to intervene before the toxicity becomes so severe the organization fails and service delivery is severely diminished, losing public support for the agency. Elected officials chosen to represent the views of the community should do the same, especially if the toxic leadership is at the uppermost executive level, reporting only to the elected officials themselves.

The Cowardly Lions and Mimics lack confidence or training, and their issues are more easily resolved than are the Demons. Frequently, Cowardly Lions and Mimics emerge due to selection processes focused on past technical performance in another role, not their potential as effective leaders. Refined processes can help, but even then, new leaders must be developed, nurtured, and supported. They should be provided training and mentored into their new roles. This latter point is especially true if they have worked in small, geographically separated areas where there has been little opportunity for them to model positive behavior, or where they will be working in such outside of the eyes of potential mentors.

Of these three types, the Demon is most difficult to deal with. They do not view themselves as flawed leaders, finding means to justify their actions. In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler wrote “Every villain is a hero in his or her own story.” The Demons are resistant to mentoring or remediation. While we should attempt to work with them, for the benefit of all, including the Demons themselves, they should be removed from positions of leadership through either demotion, reassignment or termination, with termination being the final resort. This might seem harsh, especially if the individual has worked their way up the organization, however, if the workplace environment is not protected, if toxic leadership is not weeded out when it is found, it can overtake the culture and destroy it forever, choking out that which made the organization bloom.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is an HR training and development consultant and serves as Senior Doctoral Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected].

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