In 2010, Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey founded WeWork, an innovative company that offered flexible workspaces across the world. Neumann, the CEO, seemed dead set on developing a new era of work. His goal was positively changing how people live, work and connect. What no one seemed to realize until it was too late, was Neumann was a toxic boss.
The cofounder was proficient in talking the talk. He knew exactly what to say and how to inspire and motivate employees. For instance, people were surprised at how open-minded and forward-thinking the charismatic leader was. Yet, in reality, Neumann wasn’t a generous, courageous leader. As explained in Reeves Wiedeman’s Billion Dollar Loser, it was all a facade—a public image developed for increasing his influence and prestige. Eventually, it came to light that he fired people before their stock options matured, lied to the media and his team about the company’s value, and bought million-dollar houses and private jets while laying off hundreds of employees. In addition to these toxic behaviors, several WeWork employees came forward with allegations of racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment. They claimed the business’s leaders did nothing to resolve these problems.
Sadly, Neumann’s story isn’t uncommon—toxic bosses plague American businesses. A survey conducted by Monster.com found 76 percent of people looking for a new job cited their toxic boss as the reason for this change. The effects of this issue range from loss of profits to increased stress and the health conditions associated with this. To avoid the consequences of poor leadership, find out more about what a toxic boss is, their top characteristics, and ways to work through these negative traits.
What is a Toxic Boss?
A toxic boss is someone in a leadership role who causes damage to those they’re entrusted to guide, develop, and care for. In essence, they abuse their position of power. For example, this might include conducting oneself in an emotionally or physically harmful way, leading with an overly authoritarian leadership style, behaving in an aggressive, demeaning manner, or showing no appreciation toward team members.
Toxic Boss Characteristics
- Emotionally Unintelligent
Top 5 Signs of a Toxic Boss
As stated in The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership, “Toxic environments are not the result of spontaneous bad fortune. They are the result of toxic leaders.” Working through these behavioral issues alleviates organizational problems that prevent the business and its people from reaching their full potential. The first step in eliminating behaviors associated with abusive bosses is knowing what the signs are. This helps a person identify these negative qualities in themselves and others. Learn the red flags to look for in your own leadership style, and those you’re growing into leaders.
1. Team Members Seem Visibly Tense or Angry
People who have a toxic boss suffer mentally and physically from the effects of the stress caused by their employer. Russell Johnson, a researcher from the University of Michigan tells Science Daily, “People who are recipients of incivility at work feel mentally fatigued as a result” which causes them to “act uncivil toward other workers.” This means victims of a toxic boss are more likely to snap at those around them because their leader is negatively impacting their mental health.
2. The Business Isn’t Innovative
Individuals working for a toxic boss are likely to see a workplace that lacks innovation. Once someone in a leadership role shuts down or shames someone several times, a person’s excitement about contributing to the business sinks. Team members quickly learn the company isn’t looking for creative, innovative, problem-solvers. They want people who will put their heads down, be quiet, and do what they’re told. When workers feel this way, they become disengaged, drained, and dissatisfied. This is because employees crave a leader who will inspire, motivate, encourage, and support them. Without this, it’s nearly impossible to get people to try and achieve the company’s vision and mission.
3. There’s a Huge Lack of Trust
A bad boss doesn’t work on building trust with their direct reports. Because of this, they’re constantly micromanaging their team members. As Stephen Covey writes in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Without trust we don’t truly collaborate; we merely coordinate or, at best, cooperate.” Leaders focus on growing, mentoring, and teaching their employees how to be great. They know there’s a difference between leadership and management. Yet, abusive bosses especially feel the need to always be in control. For example, this might look like constantly looking over a person’s shoulder while they’re doing their work or stepping in and doing it for them. Taking on others’ work just creates more pressure and stress in a leader’s life, which in turn makes them an even worse boss.
4. Employees Feel Unrecognized and Underappreciated
A simple “thank you” goes a long way when it goes to boosting morale and employee retention. Research conducted by Reward Gateway discovered 70 percent of workers believed “motivation and morale would improve if managers simply said thank you more and noticed good work.” However, those who have to deal with a toxic boss experience a lack of employee recognition and appreciation. It seems like all of their hard work goes unnoticed. This results in high turnover rates, poor employer reviews on websites like Glassdoor, and a bad company reputation that deters top talent from joining the team.
5. Leaders Don’t Demonstrate Company Values
Abusive bosses don’t lead with integrity. This means they don’t have moral standards that prevent them from misconduct. While they might communicate the business’s core values, they do not actively demonstrate these qualities themselves. Additionally, they lack leadership qualities like accountability and often point the finger at others for problems they caused. Because of this, they build a team culture where no one takes ownership of their responsibilities. This results in low project completion rates, dysfunctional teams, avoidable business mistakes, and dissatisfied clients and customers.
How to Work Through Toxic Leadership Traits
Fortunately, there are several ways to correct toxic boss traits. If you recognize any of these signs within yourself or those you’ve selected to serve on your leadership team, use the tips below to fix these tendencies. They will improve your work environment, create better relationships with employees, and lead to increased business success.
Step 1: Develop a Plan to Fix What’s Broken
The first step in halting abusive boss traits at work is acknowledging there’s a problem. This requires a period of reflection. For instance, it wasn’t until Steve Jobs was dismissed from Apple in 1985, that he was able to step back and reevaluate his leadership style. As he explained, “Getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” Jobs’ quote shows failure isn’t definitive—it’s a learning experience. You will fail as a leader, just as those you’re teaching to lead will fail. These moments give people an opportunity to take a hard look at their actions and correct them.
To get started assessing what needs to change:
- Ask for feedback. If it makes employees and other leaders feel more comfortable, do this via an anonymous survey.
- Discuss ways to improve your leadership abilities with a mentor. You can also provide mentorship to leaders who are struggling with certain toxic boss characteristics.
- Hold yourself and others accountable for displaying poor leadership behaviors. For example, if one of your managers lashed out at an employee, advise them to make amends with the person. Let them know they need to recognize how they hurt the team member and communicate this when apologizing.
- Put clear disciplinary actions in place for bad leadership.
Step 2: Communicate Each Team Member’s Value
One of the easiest fixes to correct toxic boss behavior is showing regular employee appreciation. According to an Achievers’ survey, only 10.8 percent of employees said their manager was “awesome” at providing recognition on a weekly basis. When workers aren’t valued for their work, disengagement levels rise. Think of this like being in a marriage where your partner never expresses any gratitude for you. Imagine not being acknowledged for cooking, cleaning, and working hard while still making time for your partner. Eventually, you’ll feel taken for granted. It’s the same feeling employees get when they don’t receive the validation, appreciation, and recognition they need. This is because love and esteem are two basic human needs.
To show how appreciative you are of your team:
- Meet with direct reports to discuss weekly goals and feedback. During this time, recognize wins and excellent work.
- Communicate thanks publicly (in front of others) and privately (during one-on-ones).
- Discuss how vital team members are to you, their coworkers, and the entire business. Recognize specific ways they keep the organization thriving.
- Ask employees about their goals with the company and how they’d like to be rewarded for their service. Over time, try to fulfill as many reasonable requests as possible.
3. Create and Communicate an Action Plan
Giving a sincere apology that’s complete with a detailed plan on how to be better is a great way to mend damaged relationships. Leaders demonstrate integrity when their words and actions align. Creating an action plan shows employees you’ve carefully considered the ways in which you want to grow from your mistakes. Additionally, let those wronged know how to hold you accountable for your words, actions, and behaviors. Furthermore, ask the person for suggestions on how they’d like to see you build the relationship back up. As they communicate this, listen and be willing to implement constructive feedback.
When righting your wrongs:
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. For example, ask yourself, “How are they feeling?” and “What needs to happen in order to receive forgiveness?” Think these things through before asking to meet for an in-person discussion.
- Be specific about what you’re apologizing for and why.
- Never try and bypass getting permission for a person’s forgiveness.
- Give people space to communicate their feelings and grievances.
- Listen to what the team member says and let them know how you plan on implementing their suggestions.
Make the Best Decision for Your Team
Sometimes great leadership is recognizing someone else is better for the job. If you’re no longer passionate about serving, it might be time to step down and let someone else lead. There’s no shame in doing what is right for the company and its people. Others’ definition of success doesn’t also have to be yours. For this reason, don’t feel like you failed if you choose to replace yourself with someone who has a greater capacity to guide the organization and its people. You always have the choice to make a pivot and find a different way to serve the business.
If the problem is employees who were promoted into leadership roles, it’s important to coach them on how to change. However, if they walked through the first three steps provided above, but still haven’t made any progress, don’t let them continue negatively impacting the organization. Research from the University of Manchester shows toxic bosses with psychopathic traits can cause clinical depression and low job satisfaction in employees. As an employer, it is, without a doubt, your duty to protect team members. With this in mind, use your decision-making skills to determine whether you should reposition a toxic leader or let them go.
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