The Rise of the Toxic Leaders: Watch out and Weed! Part 1

July 14, 2017

Why do there seem to be so many toxic workplaces out there?  And why would we choose such a strong word to describe workplaces? Well, when it comes to impacting people’s well being, both physically and emotionally, toxic is not an exaggeration. Adding a difficult recession to this, with limited resources and fear of job security, and toxicity seems to rise. People are more protective, secretive, political, and their worst qualities become more apparent when under extreme stress.

Every day our phone rings at Canada Career Counselling and Calgary Career Counselling with people who are not only unfulfilled, but on the verge of quitting dysfunctional work environments. And with the recession Alberta has experienced since 2015, we’ve seen a drastic rise in the number of these situations.  Why is that? And, more importantly, what can organizations do about it?

From my perspective as an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist (aka, Workplace Psychologist), I believe one of the major causes of toxicity is ineffective leaders who are not held accountable for doing their job of being a good leader. But note that the vast majority of ineffective leaders do not see themselves this way, making it more difficult to effect change.

For example, I was speaking to a leader I coach recently, and she feels that her supervisor is disengaged and not there for his team. My question was, what is his boss doing about this?  She said his boss isn’t likely aware there’s even a problem.  My point is that it is every leader’s job to have a pulse on the effectiveness of his/her direct reports, and, if applicable, those who report to them. All the way up to the CEO, and even the Board of Directors, gaining a pulse on leadership at all levels is critical, and this can only be done through getting input along the way from those being led.

We like to use the analogy of a garden when we present on how to avoid toxic workplace cultures. It’s amazing how quickly weeds can pop up, and before you know it your garden is infested (you should see mine)! You didn’t mean for it to become like this, but the look and feel of it is overwhelming, as the thorny monsters wreak havoc on your lovely plants, and seem so difficult to get rid of. This is akin to toxic leaders, who may fly under the radar at first. In fact, some of these leaders do not even realize that their behaviours are creating a toxic environment. Well intentioned people can even be toxic leaders when they do not realize their impact on others.

Others may be gifted with charisma, smooth talking their way to accolades in boardrooms, while taking credit for their people’s work, not holding people accountable, and, at their worst, bullying or being unavailable or disengaged (also known as “laissez faire leadership”). The reason we see more of these symptoms during tough times is because the leaders themselves may be feeling unsupported and fearful, leading to dysfunctional habits.

The team environments and corporate cultures that result from these toxic leaders are often described as negative, fearful, and highly political.  People are afraid to share ideas or to bring up issues.  Indeed, according to Ed Catmull, President of Pixar (2014): “A hallmark of a healthy, creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.” And according to Gallup, management is one of the top reasons people leave a job, even ahead of pay. This quote says it best: “People leave managers, not companies.” (Victor Lipman, Forbes (2015).


Stay tuned for Part 2, with strategies to prevent the weeds of toxic leadership from flourishing.


By Dr. Laura Hambley
Registered Psychologist
Founder, Canada Career Counselling – Toronto and Calgary

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