Signs of Toxic Leadership Culture

By October 6, 2021

I have served in some toxic leadership cultures in the past. I was once a division manager for a large sales team and sales were down due to the economy. I’ll never forget how I was treated by representatives from the corporate office. One time a I had my sales book shoved across the table into my chest. Thankfully, sales were down and the book was lighter than normal.

Even more, I have hired people out of them and helped dozens of other leaders recover after being in a toxic leadership culture.

My personal experiences have caused me to strive to build healthy leadership cultures wherever I have been in my career. Plus, I care about leaders, which is why I write this blog, my leadership book, and why I host a leadership podcast. Nothing is more damaging to the quality of a person’s work life than a toxic leadership culture.

Pastors have left the ministry as a result of toxic leadership. These cultures have kept good leaders and organizations from reaching their full potential. And toxic cultures impact not only the leader but his/her family as well.

Therefore, I have very little sympathy towards a toxic leadership culture.

5 signs of toxic leadership:

People quit without their next steps figured out.

If people are willing to jump ship before they even have their future income lined up, it is often a sign of a toxic culture.

I have talked with so many leaders that simply realize life is too short to be miserable for too long, so they roll the dice and gamble their career just to get out from under the toxic culture.

People become a comfortable casualty.

The opposite of the previous sign is also true of toxic cultures. Some people stay, but remain miserable. The toxic culture basically mutes them and they never live up to their full potential.

Under toxic leadership people stop taking risks for fear of retribution. They simply give up trying. A person can stay on the payroll as long as they “play by the rules” and “stay out of trouble”. Often when you find there are no longer innovators on the team it is a sign of a toxic culture

Meetings with supervisors are dreaded.

Toxic cultures create fear for people at every level of the organization beneath the top few chairs. Take annual reviews for example, what should be an encouraging and helpful process, actually cause anxiety and tension. People expect to be reprimanded rather than rewarded.

Similarly, whenever a person has a meeting scheduled with their supervisor and it causes anxiety in them prior to the appointment.

(My advice here is that there should seldom be any surprises between a team member and their supervisor. If there is a problem with a person’s performance it shouldn’t be stored up for some future calendared meeting. It should be handled in the moment. Save reviews and regular meetings for a part of team-building and development.)

Policies are valued over people. 

Toxic cultures love rules. They will protect the structure at any cost; even to the detriment of team members. If it comes down to common sense dealing with people versus obeying the letter of the law – the law will easily be followed.

People feed less than valued as a result and the process is more rewarded than actual human effort.

Management is preferred over leadership.

In toxic cultures people are managed by handing out instructions and making sure they comply with them.

Healthy cultures encourage individual empowerment and creativity. To lead people well, all levels within the organization have to be afforded the opportunity and responsibility to innovate.

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