In research we conducted through surveying thousands of employees, receiving hundreds of their personal stories, and interviewing dozens of selected employees and managers, we found common patterns of behavior among what we call “toxic leaders” – those leaders who destroy those who work for them. Here are the top 10 traits we found:
1. They look good – at least on paper.
They’re often articulate, skilled socially and persuasive. They can be smart and highly skilled in the technical area of a business. Many demonstrate they can motivate others to generate positive results. Sometimes they start out as largely healthy individuals but, over time, pressures and compromises degrade their integrity.
2. They’re extreme about achieving goals.
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Most toxic leaders are intensely committed to achieving goals. Hyper-focused on accomplishment, they use all of their resources to pursue their goal, and they are adept at getting others to join them. It is important to note, however, that their goals often are driven by self-interest and self-promotion.
3. They’re manipulative.
Toxic leaders are masters of manipulation – both of information and people. They’re masters of making things look good when they’re not. They choose what they will share, when, with whom, and in what manner, manipulating the presentation of information. Through guilt, shame, and threat of embarrassment, toxic leaders manipulate those who work for them.
4. They’re narcissistic.
Toxic leaders truly believe they’re superior. They think they are brighter and more talented than you. They are the reason for everything good that has happened, and therefore, they should get the credit. They naturally conclude their desires, image and success should come first. Although they won’t say so publicly, they believe rules don’t apply to them but are made for everyone else.
5. They steal credit for others’ achievements.
Most toxic leaders have no qualms about taking full responsibility for any success that occurs. Involved or not, if the positive result occurs near their presence, they’ll proclaim the results are due to their superior vision, insight and efforts. When a team commits extraordinary time and effort to make an event successful, their work is not mentioned. Somehow, the leader gets all of the glory.
6. They’re condescending.
Toxic leaders almost always relate to others in a condescending manner – except when they praise others to manipulate them.
Since they believe no one else is as talented or bright as they, they think their ideas should always be received with respect and deference. Be forewarned: Do not challenge them in front of others. When they don’t feel appropriately respected, they tear down those they see as a threat to their authority.
7. They’re inauthentic.
At first, toxic leaders may act as if they care deeply about the organization’s causes and its people.
In fact, one type of toxic leader is the warm, engaging leader who comes across as greatly caring for others. But it’s a superficial act. Over time, their true persona becomes apparent to those around them. The leader’s lack of authenticity can become evident in other areas as well – they don’t have the talents and skills they appeared to have, their prior experience and education may turn out to be a sham, and often the results they bragged about achieving in other organizations are exposed as grossly exaggerated.
8. They use others.
For the sake of “the larger cause,” toxic leaders will use and sacrifice those who work for them, no matter how loyal. Toxic leaders rarely, if ever, take responsibility for anything that goes wrong.
They attribute failure to others. They’re talented at rewriting history and coating themselves in Teflon, allowing nothing bad to stick. They’ll ask team members, “How could you let this happen? I’m terribly disappointed in you.”
People can walk out of a meeting asking, “What just happened? How did the boss dodge that bullet?”
9. They won’t address real risks.
Toxic leaders tend to ignore issues they don’t care about or those that don’t help them look good.
Issues crucial to the health of the organization, such as conflicts among staff, go unaddressed. Often they focus on immediate gains, neglecting long-term implications or simply saying, “It will all work out over time.”
Many toxic leaders pay extreme attention to presenting an image of helping the organization succeed financially, but ignore the realities of the true financial situation.
10. They don’t stick around for the fall.
One thing many toxic leaders know how to do well is “get out of town” before everything falls apart.
And they plan their departure so that, unlike in “The Wizard of Oz,” no one discovers what’s behind the curtain. Some make out like a bandit financially or leap to a larger organization into a higher position of leadership and influence – while their former companies clean up the ruin they left.
Paul White, Ph.D., is a psychologist, author, speaker and consultant. He is co-author of “Rising Above a Toxic Workplace” and “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.” For more information, go to www.appreciationatwork.com.