This is an original article written by Gina McClowry.
Every leader leaves behind a legacy. Toxic leaders who abuse their leadership role can continue to harm a company even after they are gone. I’ve seen the long term effects of toxic leadership in some of the organizations I’ve consulted with. In each company, it took concerted effort and practical steps to rid the culture of the leader’s poison.
Some of the most common attributes of a toxic leader include:
- They bully, yell, or display other harassing or blatantly disrespectful behavior
- They think the rules don’t apply to them (autocratic mindset)
- They show bias and favoritism towards certain employees, especially ones that help them further their agenda
- They are highly directive, often refusing to solicit other opinions or perspectives (“it’s my way or the highway”)
- They create a fear-based culture where people are afraid to make decisions or act autonomously
- They possess an arrogant and narcissistic mindset, frequently flout their personal accomplishments or take credit for others’ successes
- They blames others when things go wrong and refuse to accept accountability and responsibility for mistakes or failures
So what can a company do to undo the mess that toxic leaders leave in their wake and successfully usher in a new era?
Use a 3rd party to facilitate conversation. Even after a toxic leader leaves, employees can still be afraid to talk openly about the corporate culture. They’ve learned to keep their heads down and their mouths closed and will need to be coaxed to share their experiences and hopes for the future. A neutral 3rd party can successfully facilitate employee and manager feedback sessions that can be used to establish new corporate operating rules, values, and goals.
Eliminate bias and favoritism. One of the hallmarks of a toxic leader is a culture of favoritism. Individuals who support and cow tail to the leader are rewarded and those who don’t are punished. When a toxic leader leave, it’s an important time to have transparent conversations at the executive and senior leadership levels about employee performance and potential. Having annual calibration sessions will allow multiple stakeholders to come together and discuss employee performance as a group, reducing skewed or one-sided viewpoints.
Decide which behaviors will be rewarded and which will be punished. Toxic leaders often give silent permission to other employees to emulate them and get away with it. Their toxicity breeds more toxic employees and the culture as a whole becomes tainted. I once worked with a company who regularly mentioned stories of aggressive employees that others feared. It was clear these employees learned their bullying tactics from the boss himself. Healing requires that these employees be confronted, disciplined, and if necessary, moved out of the company. The company needs to take a formal stand that behavior like that of the toxic leader will no longer be ignored.
Introduce employee recognition programs. Toxic leaders often create a “me, me, me” environment where their own accomplishments are lauded and everyone else’s contributions are minimized. This leads to a disengaged, cynical, and demotivated workforce. Recognition programs that reward the right behaviors and provide frequent and tangible awards can help repair a discouraged and cynical culture. Where the former manager led with a stick, the new culture should offer carrots, and lots of them.
Invest in leadership and management training – Toxic leaders routinely rule by command and control and scare tactics. In that environment, managers and leaders often lose the ability to confidently make decisions that drive the business. As a company heals from a toxic leader, managers at all levels will need to redevelop the skills and confidence to lead. Leadership development opportunities that include mentorship, case studies in a classroom environment, and stretch assignments can be effective at building decision-making skills.
Toxic leaders introduce poison into a company that can only be eradicated through new leadership and time. In my experience, companies have to heal from the inside out when a toxic leader leaves. With the right systems and support in place, the culture can shift, healing will occur, and real organizational health will emerge.