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The Truth of Toxic Leadership

Imagine going into work and being afraid to tell your boss you can’t stay late because you have another obligation. Imagine knowing that she will yell, belittle, and say you are not a “team player.” Imagine getting the silent treatment after you disagreed with your leader in a meeting. 

Imagine being called names, being manipulated into performing tasks with which you are not comfortable, being excluded from promotions — or even conversations. Imagine rolling eyes or impatient huffs every time you dare speak up. 

Over 30 million of us don’t have to imagine. We have to get dressed and go into a toxic work environment. Or call in sick as often as we can. Or finally quit.

Now imagine you are the one making people feel this way or the one allowing toxicity, implicitly or otherwise, to spread like a malignant tumor.

It’s Me, Hi, I’m the Problem, It’s Me

Bottom line: one in nine of us reports working in a toxic environment. One in five of us will or have quit a job because it is soul-destroying. And, collectively, businesses will spend more than $44 billion per year (more now, after the Great Resignation) as a result.

Work on the “It’s not them, it’s me” mantra. If you are, in fact, the problem (Hi, it’s you), how can you recognize that and find your way through it? If the problem is your super stars, how do you separate the desire for performance from your need to establish and maintain a safe, healthy workplace? 

Sit down with yourself. Is this behaviour you have displayed? Is this behaviour you have allowed on your team? During this conversation with yourself, be fearless and be honest. You are never going to get vulnerability and authenticity if fear is the first narrative people function with. Rather than trust and safety, you create conditions for self-preservation and control. 

We are not asking you to admit to anything that isn’t true. We are asking you to pursue all the possible information in order to understand reality accurately. 

Toxic Leadership

Toxicity thrives in darkness. We need to expose it for what it is. In our work, we have experienced three key forms of toxic leadership: 


It may show up as yelling, name-calling, explosive losses of temper… Or it may be even worse. It can be silent. Subtle insults, mind games, exclusion, dismissal of ideas, microaggressions. Bullying can involve creating secret alliances and an “us versus them” element — or, as is often the case, the “power” group and the “underdogs.”

Are you a bully? 

No! Of course not! But…

This is the biggest obstacle to changing behaviour. Bullies don’t know they are bullies. And that behaviour you have “wondered” about in your other senior leaders, probably is bullying. 


This is a slippery one. Pat Lencioni says that the ideal team player has three traits:

  • Humble
  • Hungry
  • Smart

They must have all three traits. When people are smart and hungry but not humble, that’s where manipulation arises. They can manipulate others — not necessarily to only get what they want, but what they need as a team/department, and they know it. There are subtle strategies that might seem “reasonable” but are manipulative. It’s the meeting after (or before) the meeting. It’s a leader who always has a perfectly framed argument and leaves no room for disagreement. Manipulation can be just as toxic as bullying, though it may wear nicer clothes.

Conflict Avoidance

Think of meaning as a river. Violence or silence keeps it from flowing. If your behaviour is withholding meaning from conversations, it’s a big red flag. You may not want to rock the boat or threaten a relationship by commenting, but ask yourself, Am I failing to provide meaning that should be there?

Some people avoid conflict because they really think that’s the best course of action. Others do it for self-preservation. Call it by its name, toxic positivity. So another question to pose in your unflinching examination: What, exactly, am I trying to preserve? 

It is your job, your commitment, to speak up.

Under Pressure 

In moments of tension and when the pressure is dialed up, everything is amplified. You have to reach into your bank account of trust. But if you go for a withdrawal and have insufficient funds… It’s a pretty clear sign that some of these toxic behaviours have been seeping into your workplace and onto your team.

Bullies usually call themselves confident. We pass off manipulation as a win to be proud of. We promote false harmony and think we’ve done a good job of not “stirring the pot”. But these are toxic behaviours, actually. And when a leader does it, they enable everyone else to do the same things.

If trust is not at the table when you reach for it, what do you do about it?

Take Action

If you want to see change, you need to be the change. Normalize conversations, positive behaviour, like sitting down, shutting up, and listening. 

Establish healthy team norms. For example, yelling may be normal to you. It’s how you were raised, and you had to raise your voice to be heard. For others, though, yelling is a huge trigger. They shut down. Your team needs to have the agency to say, “This isn’t working. Your behaviour means that we can’t get our job done.”

Push yourself to ask the hard questions and force yourself to be the person who is quiet for a couple of meetings. You may come to the place where you acknowledge that you can’t be both the problem and the solution. Bring in a facilitator to call toxicity out in a way that others can’t.

Rebuilding relationships and reestablishing psychological safety is challenging. It’s a process that requires everyone to take ownership. Your team has been affected in different ways; to ensure they are safe, there needs to be real acknowledgement of what’s been going on and that you don’t want that to continue. 

Building a Healthier Organization

Where are you? Take our free assessment. It’s available for any leader who is willing to do the work, unpack, and take action. 

Toxic traits can show up in a myriad of ways. What’s important to recognize is that you may be the problem — or at least allowing the problem to live, breathe, and destroy your team. And let’s be clear. You’re not the only problem. But if you’re the leader, you have to work through this before anything will get anywhere. There is a better way. Let’s find it.


Toxic work environment: https://www.businessinsider.com/toxic-workplaces-culture-work-leadership-social-culture-2022-9

Quit: https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/31/these-are-the-5-biggest-signs-of-a-toxic-workplace.html

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