How to tackle toxic leadership

Author: Flavia Nogueira

Experts explain the traits of a bad boss and how to deal with them


Have you ever had to deal with a boss that was unwilling to listen to feedback, had an excessive temper, lied, bullied or harassed you or your colleagues? 


If the answer is yes, then you’ve endured four of the eight traits of toxic leadership, according to the psychiatrist Jean Kim. 


“Unfortunately, leadership can also be one of the major causes of stress in the workplace, when a leader displays certain behaviors and characteristics that contribute to a negative, even hostile working environment”, Dr Kim explains in an article for Psychology Today.


She points out the following traits and behaviours as warning signs a leader may be detrimental to your mental wellbeing:

  1. Unwillingness to listen to feedback

  2. Excessive self-promotion and self-interest

  3. Lying and inconsistency

  4. Lack of moral philosophy

  5. Rewarding incompetence and a lack of accountability

  6. Lack of general support and mentoring

  7. Cliquishness (leaders who surround themselves with a small group of people who parrot and mimic them)

  8. Bullying and harassment


The problem with bad leaders


This behaviour is problematic because, as Dr Kim explains, leaders should be held to a higher standard.


“They are responsible not just for themselves, but for the people they work with. They are the ones who have the decision-making power to institute positive and helpful dynamics in the workplace.”


Dr Kim says that, unfortunately, leaders may choose to use this power to exert their own sense of control or self-serving goals. And, the consequences for the employees can be terrible.


“That misuse of power can easily trickle down into their employees’ psyches, causing incredible distress, betrayal, anger, and eventually, can even lead to mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and even trauma”, says the psychiatrist.


The American Psychological Association warns that work-related stress doesn’t disappear when you head home for the day.


“A stressful work environment can contribute to problems such as headache, stomachache, sleep disturbances, short temper and difficulty concentrating. Chronic stress can result in anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. It can also contribute to health conditions such as depression, obesity and heart disease.”


Writing for Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at Columbia University, says that incompetent leaders can affect not only their teams, but the whole company.


“Whereas competent leaders cause high levels of trust, engagement, and productivity, incompetent ones result in anxious, alienated workers who practice counterproductive work behaviours and spread toxicity throughout the firm. Incompetents leaders are the main reason for low levels of employee engagement, and the prevalent high levels of passive job seeking and self-employment”, explains Chamorro-Premuzic.


When facing the challenge of toxic leadership


Leadership author and CEO of Careerstone, Mary Abbajay, lists these strategies in an article for Harvard Business Review:


  1. Don’t give feedback, make requests: try to talk to your boss and also try making specific requests to get what you need.

  2. Engage your support network: surround yourself with friends and people who support you, it’s important to have outlets outside work.

  3. Get plenty of exercise and sleep: taking care of your mental and physical wellbeing is essential.

  4. Explore other opportunities within your organisation: maybe there’s a way of escaping your boss without having to leave the company.

  5. Consider consulting with HR: seek the advice of a mediator or HR representative that you trust, they might have already helped others in the same situation.




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